A group of forty-four artists and writers are calling on President Joe Biden to denounce Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses during his meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, scheduled to take place later this month and spurred by the global fuel crisis caused by Russia’s violent and unprovoked attack on Ukraine. Among those who have signed an open letter sponsored by PEN America demanding Biden raise concerns about the country’s human rights record, particularly in regard to freedom of speech and artistic expression, are artists Molly Crabapple, Kiki Smith, and Alec Soth; critic and photographer Teju Cole; novelists J. M. Coetzee, Siri Hustvedt, Jonathan Lethem, and Jay McInerney; and playwrights Henry Hwang and Tom Stoppard.
The missive’s authors pointed to Saudi authorities’ routine efforts to stifle writers, journalists and bloggers expressing views that do not align with those of the government. Among the methods deployed to silence dissenting voices are imprisonment, isolation, torture, and travel bans. An extreme example of the lengths to which the Saudi government has gone to quash freedom of speech is the 2018 murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, whose killing is widely believed to have been sanctioned by Crown Prince Mohammed and which took place inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Saudi Arabia has in recent years poured billions of dollars into art projects in an attempt to become a hub for cultural tourism, partnering with Desert X and developing its AlUla region into a multibillion-dollar “valley of the arts” that will be overseen by former Whitechapel Gallery director Iwona Blazwick and feature new public artworks by Manal Al Dowayan, Michael Heizer, and James Turrell, among others.
Calling on Biden to demand the unconditional release of all journalists and writers imprisoned by the kingdom, the letter writers implored him not to be fooled by the 2021 release of a number of activists, noting that “the vast majority were released under stringent conditions that continue to infringe their free expression rights, including prohibiting them from using social media or speaking to the press, travel bans, and suspended prison sentences. They cannot take up their professions and they all face serious repercussions if they breach the conditions of their release. So while they may be physically free, they are intellectually and professionally still in prison.” The signatories additionally called for Biden to push for an end to the travel bans imposed by the Saudi government as punishment.