At least 70 political activists, intellectuals and prominent public figures were detained in Saudi Arabia in September in an unprecedented wave of mass arrests. Many observers see it as a crackdown on potential opposition to the rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his increasingly controversial policies.
Ali al-Ahmed, an exiled Saudi opposition leader and Director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs in Washington, DC, told Global Insight: ‘Families are afraid to report the absence of their loved ones for fear of retaliation.’
Following the arrests, the Saudi government instigated a massive state and social media blitz, claiming those detained were agents of foreign powers. But many in the country have been surprised by the scope and ferocity of the arrests – and baffled by their motivation.
As de facto ruler of the Kingdom, the Crown Prince has repeatedly said he plans to overturn decades-long traditions and open up the conservative country to more freedoms. He has surrounded himself with self-styled liberal secularists.
One of the high-profile figures arrested is Sheikh Salman al-Ouda, a prominent Sunni Islamic scholar. According to reports, he was allegedly detained because of his apparent reluctance to support a regional embargo against Qatar.
“ The alliance between Salman and the authoritarian clerics generates a momentum to get rid of reformists
Professor Sari Hanafi
The American University of Beirut
Amnesty International described the arrests as targeting ‘the last vestiges of freedom of expression in the Kingdom… almost all the country’s most prominent human rights defenders are [now] in prison on bogus terrorism-related charges’.
Sheikh Ouda, a popular figure who has 14 million followers on Twitter and is prominent on many other platforms, had called for improvements in the country, but was not part of the opposition to the ruling Al Saud family.
John Vernon, an officer of the IBA Human Rights Law Committee Advisory Board, says the Saudi government fears Sheikh Ouda and his followers, on YouTube especially, because he speaks to students and the middle class, who are being hardest hit by the current downturn in the Saudi economy.
‘He apparently challenges the regime’s godliness and their Salafi credentials,’ says Vernon, who is also an Adjunct Professor at SMU Dedman School of Law. ‘His brand of Salafi awareness looks like another “Arab Spring”. He has been called the Bernie Sanders of Saudi because of his belief in equality for all Arabs. He wishes to open the Saudi Peninsula to all immigrants who live in Saudi Arabia.’
Also among those arrested were Abdallah al-Maliki and Mustafa al-Hasan, two Saudis known for their youth activism though not for being opposed to the government. ‘I know very well Abdullah Maliki. He is definitely not part of any political opposition. He was arrested simply because he is a reformist,’ says Sari Hanafi, a professor at the American University of Beirut.
Hanafi, who was among the first to report the undisclosed arrests, says that, contrary to the Crown Prince’s public statements, an odd alliance is emerging between the young Salman and ultra-conservatives who fear reformist scholars.
‘The alliance between the authoritarian pseudo-secularism of Salman and the authoritarianism of clerics, particularly the Saudi Permanent Committee for Islamic Research and Issuing Fatwas, generates a momentum to get rid of reformists,’ says Hanafi.
Other detainees include figures who have traditionally been close to the Saudi regime. Essam al-Zamil is a businessman who had just returned from a government-sponsored trip to the United States, while Muhammad Musa al-Sharif is an academic who has made a career on television by re-examining Islamic history, backed by the state or members of the royal family.
Also initially detained were two female Saudi academics, Nora al-Saeed and Rokaya al-Mohareb, both of whom are prominent on social media. Calling in women for questioning or arresting is rare in the Kingdom, where tribal traditions frown over sending women to prison.
Saudi officials have not shared information on the motivation for the arrests other than citing undefined terrorism charges. Riyadh also used members of the state-sponsored religious establishment to declare that those detained harboured no good for their country and that the arrests were therefore Islamically justified. The Saudi Embassy in Washington, DC did not respond to requests by Global Insight for comment.
The Saudi news agency issued a government statement that referred to ‘intelligence activities by a group of persons for the benefit of foreign parties against the security of the Kingdom’.
Al-Ahmad says the statement may be referring to Qatar. He believes the arrests may be used later to justify another crackdown against Qatar to protect the national security of Saudi Arabia or even a potential ‘military operation’ to force regime change in Qatar.
In a related move, the Saudi government has announced the reorganisation of its ‘state security’ force, which will be placed under the direct leadership of the Crown Prince. The secret force is now charged with keeping ‘internal social peace’ and guarding against ‘foreign interventions’ – unmistakable code to many in the Arab region for state brutality and repression.
The government has also moved to ban writers who do not support official policy. Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi columnist who is aligned with the government but has recently questioned policy decisions, has been barred from writing in Saudi newspapers. Khashoggi's column in the London-based Arabic language daily Al-Hayat was suspended indefinitely, said a recent statement by the newspaper.