The US Wall Street Journal daily chose Wednesday to shed light on the Saudi crown prince tyranny despite the face of reform he is trying to promote.
“Dozens of high-profile Saudis are locked up in jail, many of them denounced as traitors. Hundreds, possibly more, are barred from leaving the kingdom. And others have quietly left their homeland with no plans to return, creating the rudiments of an overseas Saudi dissident community.
Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman…. is overseeing one of the most ruthless crackdowns on perceived dissenters that Saudi Arabia has experienced in decades.
After high-profile autumn roundups of what the government said were dissident clerics and corrupt businessmen, the latest wave of arrests, in May, have focused in part on women and men who pushed for the right of women to drive, even though the Saudi government is set to begin recognizing that right on June 24.
The message behind the crackdown, which has come despite scant evidence of public dissent, is that the crown prince alone intends to dictate the pace and scope of change in Saudi Arabia, critics say.
“We were hoping for a more balanced society, more rights,” says a Saudi rights activist who has come under government pressure. “Instead what has happened is more repression, just with a different ideology.” ….
Since his father, King Salman, assumed the throne in early 2015, MBS has sought to shift the kingdom’s economy away from oil and to end the dominance of religious conservatism. That push has entailed making the country more attractive to foreign investors and advocating social reforms such as opening cinemas and hosting music concerts.
Yet the arrest waves attest to the tension between social freedom and political repression in the “new” Saudi Arabia, which many Saudis see as a step backward regarding the limits of what the government tolerates.
Of the 17 rights activists known to have been rounded up last month, nine remain in jail after having confessed-according to a statement released Sunday by Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor’s office-to crimes that include cooperating with and financing “hostile elements abroad.” Allies of the detainees expressed doubt that the prisoners would have confessed willingly to what they say are bogus charges.
“The situation in Saudi Arabia has never been this bad. We were struggling, there were risks, but it wasn’t like it is now,” said Yahya Assiri, a Saudi opposition activist who has been based in London since 2013. “Now you have to be completely pro-government. Even being silent isn’t enough.”
Saudi government representatives didn’t respond to a request for comment Monday on the recent waves of arrests.People familiar with the government’s thinking say the country’s leaders wanted to send the message that nobody-not even rights activists broadly aligned with the government’s reform agenda-can get away with twisting its arm by making their demands public.
In a rare, strongly worded resolution, the European Union last week condemned “the ongoing repression of human-rights defenders…in Saudi Arabia, which undermines the credibility of the reform process in the country.” It called on Saudi authorities to release those arrested.
A popular Saudi political cartoonist, Jabertoon, captured the current climate of fear in a cartoon depicting two men sitting in a prison cell. “I’m jailed for armed robbery. You?” a man asks of his new cellmate. “WhatsApp,” the other replies.
The three waves of arrests have targeted prominent members of Saudi society, many of them outspoken individuals who cultivated international reputations. Few have been formally charged.
Relatives of those imprisoned are barred from leaving Saudi Arabia. Family members of opposition activists living in exile-in some cases even their uncles and cousins-have also been banned from travel, according to activists and people close to some of those arrested.
Among the roughly 70 people detained in the first wave of arrests, in September, was one of Saudi Arabia’s best-known clerics, Salman al-Odah. Odah and another well-known cleric, Awad al-Qarni, were detained after not adopting the Saudi government’s hard-line stance against Qatar. Both clerics made public comments on Twitter in support of better relations between the Gulf rivals at a time when Riyadh was doubling down in its campaign against Doha.
“The entire investigation was about tweets, Facebook posts and Instagram pictures and nothing really serious,” a person close to Odah said. “The only thing those arrested in September have in common is that they were public figures and independent influencers and were not linked to the government.”
The second wave of arrests, in November, took aim at some of country’s best-known businessmen and royals, who were locked up at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh and accused of corruption. Most of the roughly 380 VIP detainees were released after agreeing to cash settlements.
Those still detained include some facing accusations that have little to do with corruption. They have been accused of having conspired against the monarchy by desiring to carve a separate state out of the region of Hijaz, according to people familiar with the matter. That accusation, which people close to those detained have dismissed as a fabrication, could lead to terrorism charges, say Saudi officials familiar with the matter.
“Mohammed bin Salman is creating an opposition that he didn’t have-and that he didn’t need,” said Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and commentator who now lives in Washington after leaving the kingdom last summer amid worries he would be arrested or banned from traveling. “Every time I hear about an arrest or a friend being travel-banned, I am grateful I am here.”
Another Saudi writer, first detained by police two years ago, says he still doesn’t know why he is in jail as he hasn’t seen any charges.
“All of my writings were aligned with what the government is doing. I’m against corruption, I was calling for real change,” the writer said. “I still have high hopes that I will be released soon but I would be lying if I didn’t admit that those hopes are diminishing bit by bit every day.””