In the last few months, conflicting news reports from Saudi Arabia have spanned issues from reform, economic developments, and championing the youth, to arrests, executions, diplomatic strife, and war crimes. One thing is clear: the 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) is leading the charge for change, for better or for worse.
Since he was designated as heir to the throne in June 2017 by his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, MbS has pursued aggressive and hawkish policies both domestically and internationally. Some observers have called him a bold and progressive reformer, even a feminist, while others have viewed him as impulsive and power hungry. Nonetheless, the young and powerful crown prince is expected to assume the throne to rule the kingdom and impact the region for decades to come.
In just a couple of years, MbS lifted the ban on women driving while, at the same time, arresting the very women’s rights activists calling for such change. He promised to diversify the economy while eliminating economic and political rivals. He escalated a war in Yemen that has claimed thousands of civilian lives and caused the largest humanitarian disaster in the world today.
With some populist support at home, cautious silence from allies, and criticism from international organizations, the human rights implications and human costs of such actions are significant, indeed.
Saudi Women Can Drive Now, but Where Are They Headed?
On June 24, 2018, the only ban in the world on women driving was lifted. The original decree was ordered by King Salman in September 2017, and the first driver’s licenses were issued in Saudi Arabia in early June 2018 when 10 women exchanged their foreign licenses. For the first time in the country’s history, Saudi women were allowed to drive.
Although the crown prince is receiving the credit for instituting this change, much of the work and many of the sacrifices leading up to rescinding the driving ban were made by Saudi female activists who have been fighting for overturning it for over 28 years.
In November 1990, 47 Saudi women drove in a motorcade through Riyadh to protest the driving ban. The women were all arrested, and the Saudi religious authorities codified the existing social ban on driving into law. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Saudi women have led efforts and taken part in campaigns calling for their right to drive. Activists participating in social media campaigns such as #Women2Drive and driving protests risked jail time, a ban on travel, harsh treatment, and other punishments. Among them was Manal al-Sharif who posted on YouTube a video of herself driving in Khobar in 2011. Blogger Eman AlNafjan drove in Riyadh in 2013 while Loujain Alhathloul attempted to drive from the United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia in 2014. The primary force leading to the end of the driving ban rests in the hundreds of Saudi women who paid a high price for over three decades.
Although allowing women to drive in 2018 is a small step that represents forward progress for the lives of Saudi women, it is hardly a cause for celebration or for praising the young crown prince. Part of the Saudi Vision 2030 plan is to increase women’s employment from 22 to 30 percent, a goal for which the lack of mobility—as a result of the inability to drive—posed a significant obstacle. The timing of this move seems to be motivated more by economics than by a genuine regard for women’s rights and human rights. Furthermore, increasing women’s mobility and participation in the labor force would require a lot more than allowing them to drive.
Saudi women continue to confront several legal and social restrictions, most prominently the guardianship laws. Despite a small change in the guardianship system in April 2017, women remain restricted by regulations that require a male guardian’s consent for a Saudi woman to get married, obtain a passport, travel abroad, take a job, undergo medical procedures, or be released from prison. Meanwhile, this system is being promoted and defended in the media by Saudi men and women alike, even with the brazen hashtag #MyGuardianKnowsBest. Similarly, many women eager to drive today face opposition from their family members and the prohibitive costs of driving schools, while those who rode behind the wheel faced harassment and threats. To be sure, it will take serious and comprehensive reforms to fully realize this one small step toward equal rights and freedoms for Saudi women.
Nevertheless, the pioneers of this change remain behind bars. Just as the kingdom was getting ready to issue the first driver’s licenses to women, 17 activists were arrested on charges of being “foreign embassy agents” and “trying to undermine security and stability.” They were also labeled “traitors” in media reports for the mere acts of peacefully protesting and calling for reforms. Among those detained were prominent women’s rights activists who have been champions of lifting the driving ban long before MbS came to prominence, including Loujain Alhathloul, Eman AlNafjan, Aisha al-Manea, and Aziza al-Yousef. There are also reports of more arrests in August 2018.
It has become clear that the arrest campaign was aimed to discredit rights advocates and their role in this positive change; they faced unfounded charges, public shaming, and smear campaigns to tarnish their reputation and credibility. The message was clear: there is only one reformer and it is Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. In addition, it was clear that only the reforms that MbS wished to institute would be implemented, with little regard for the aspirations of his people or for democratic and human rights principles. The wave of arrests appears to be a domestic maneuver by MbS to ensure his ownership of this long-overdue momentous change and his control over the scope and type of reform taking place. These policies essentially discourage anyone from calling for further reforms, like ending the male guardianship system or increasing citizens’ rights and political representation.
Yes, Saudi women now can drive, but if they dare to express their opinions or advocate for human rights, they most likely would end up in jail.
The Price of Repressive Reforms
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has branded himself as the face of change and reform in Saudi Arabia, promising modernization to his country’s overwhelmingly young population. In an interview last April, he blamed problems in the kingdom on the 1979 revolution in Iran and pronounced his intentions to take Saudi Arabia back to a “moderate” Islam.
The wave of reforms can be traced back to 2015-2016 when MbS announced Saudi Vision 2030. As deputy crown prince, defense minister, and head of the Council for Economic Affairs and Development, he introduced in April 2016 Vision 2030, a plan designed to reduce Saudi Arabia’s reliance on oil revenues and diversify and privatize the economy by improving the kingdom’s global image, relaxing social restrictions, and encouraging foreign investment. Soon after becoming crown prince, MbS announced plans to attract investment by establishing Neom, a business and industrial city bordering Jordan and Egypt. In addition, part of Vision 2030 is increasing female employment in the Saudi economy; this would require loosening the strict laws that regulate women’s movement and allowing Saudi women into the public space.
Reforms sponsored by the crown prince succeeded in lifting the ban on women driving, allowing the opening of cinemas for the first time in 35 years, limiting the powers of the religious police in disciplining women regarding their clothing and public involvement, holding music concerts, and permitting women to attend mixed-gender cultural and sporting events.
However, such small and calculated changes came with a high price. Under the banner of an anti-corruption purge, MbS set out to eliminate his rivals in the kingdom: royals, economic elites, secular activists, intellectuals, and religious leaders—liberals and conservatives alike. The crackdown, which took place in November 2017, saw several government ministers, 11 princes, and many elite businessmen being detained at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh and forced to surrender their assets in exchange for their freedom. The crown prince has managed to silence his critics, disempower his rivals, and amass political and economic power.
Further, the reforms came with a dramatic increase in arbitrary detentions, with thousands arrested in the last few years and held for over six months without the right to due process. According to Human Rights Watch, these arrests violate even the Saudi Law of Criminal Procedure, which limits the detention period without charge to no more than five days and allows only the Public Prosecution bureau to renew them for up to six months. After the six-month period, the law requires that the detainee be transferred to the court or released. Additionally, these detentions are in contravention of the Arab Charter on Human Rights, ratified by Saudi Arabia in 2009, which guarantees that “no one shall be subjected to arrest or detention or stopped without legal basis and must be brought before the judiciary without delay.” Similarly, Principle 11 of the UN Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment prohibits detention without charge, trial, or legal representation.
Beyond the arrests, the Public Prosecution of Saudi Arabia, which reports directly to the king, is seeking the death penalty and execution of five human rights activists from the Eastern Province, including female activist Israa al-Ghomgham. They are being tried in the Specialized Criminal Court that handles terrorism cases and is notorious for its violations of fair trial standards, and they have been in detention for over two years awaiting trial and without access to legal representation. International standards limit the use of capital punishment to only the most serious crimes; the charges against the five activists, however, are related to their human rights advocacy including peaceful protests, social media posts, and calling on the regime to end discrimination against Shia citizens. The use of the death penalty is yet another sobering message meant to silence dissent in Saudi Arabia.
Public Relations vs. Human Rights Violations
The crown prince’s extrajudicial arrests and efforts to consolidate power stand in stark contrast to his public relations program of reform. Political freedoms remain nonexistent and crackdown on dissent is routine. Meanwhile, Vision 2030 is yet to show results, and the plan to sell part of the state-owned oil company, Saudi Aramco, has been delayed. MbS is also driving an aggressive foreign policy, especially in what he views as countering Iran. Even before emerging as the next in line to the throne, and just two months after becoming defense minister in January 2015, his signature move was Operation Decisive Storm, the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen. The United Nations reports that thousands of Yemeni civilians have been killed or injured as a result of Saudi and other airstrikes. This dire situation has been exacerbated by the blocking of humanitarian aid and the involvement, particularly of Saudi Arabia, in war crimes.
The rhetoric of reform and modernization in Saudi Arabia rings hollow in the face of such war crimes and with thousands of Saudi citizens arbitrarily arrested or sentenced to death for peaceful activism. Despite the small and positive increments of change, human rights violations remain significant: the lack of freedom of expression, political representation, a fair trial, and the right to protest.
The allowed reforms appear to be only those that serve the interests of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the one and only avowed reformer; any change in the policies of the kingdom is limited and seems to be controlled according to his agenda. Moreover, these small, slow, and limited reforms further centralize power in the monarchy and serve to justify and provide a cosmetic cover for the future king’s authoritarian and absolute power. He has succeeded in using internationally appealing phrases like fighting terrorism and extremism, anti-corruption, moderate Islam, reforms, and countering Iran to mask his true agenda and muzzle any dissent.
MbS will likely need to do much more to be called a reformer or a feminist. Whereas his changes are welcome, current policies and practices do not point to a new and more egalitarian Saudi Arabia.
Perhaps what is most disturbing is the deliberate silence of the international community, which rushed to congratulate the crown prince for lifting the ban on women driving but remains quiet regarding the arbitrary arrests of peaceful activists and the brutal crackdown on critics. (The exception is Canada, which was recently punished by Saudi Arabia for voicing concern.) The danger lies in emboldening the Saudi regime in its repression of calls for human rights and freedoms in the kingdom. The end to the driving ban was perhaps an easy step, from the crown prince’s point of view, but larger rights issues are now on the table. How far MbS the “reformer” will go remains to be seen.