Saudi's policy paradox

Emad Mekay, IBA Middle East Correspondent

Samira al-Ghamdi drives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, 24 June 2018. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

Mixed signals are emerging from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. While appearances indicate a willingness to become more liberal, a crackdown on women activists suggests otherwise.

A central policy paradox is developing in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. On the one hand, the conservative country is seeing a series of firsts courtesy of its domestic reform programme: a disco in the coastal city of Jeddah, new cinemas in Riyadh, live concerts featuring top Arab pop stars and international performers. On the other, an extreme crackdown on women activists has seen several sent to brutal solitary confinement and exposed to torture.

Last year, as the world celebrated the highly publicised lift on the longstanding driving ban for women – seen as a major coup for women’s rights – at least 14 female human rights defenders were taken into custody, according to Amnesty International. More were detained later.

Many of the women had worked, mostly from within the Kingdom’s institutions, to end the country’s male guardianship laws that give male relatives greater control over women’s movement. Some had been involved in the push to lift the ban on women drivers.

Those arrested included mainstream figures who often appeared in Saudi media and were tolerated in official institutions. They included historian Hatoon al-Fassi, blogger Eman al-Nafjan, 62-year-old academic Aziza al-Yousef, sociologist Aisha al-Mana, photographer Madeha al-Ajroush and activists such as Nouf Abdelaziz, Mayaa al-Zahrani, Nassima al-Sadah, Shadan al-Onezi, Amal al-Harbi and Loujain al-Hathloul, who in 2014 made headlines by defying the driving ban and spending ten weeks in jail as a result.

The Saudi state-run media labelled the women ‘traitors’ who were ‘in the pay of foreign powers’. Some columnists even called for their beheading.

The country’s measured social domestic changes and the concurrent onslaught on female rights defenders have shocked observers in their timing, speed and intensity. While the absolute monarchy has seen previous rulers crack down on critics, none have pushed with the same degree of force displayed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS).

In the past, the state avoided punishing women directly or harshly by delegating their penalty either to their families or to their larger tribes. This time around, the young Crown Prince has put the fate of many Saudi women into the hands of the recently created State Security Police.

For six months, many of these women were held incommunicado. Only after international outcry did Riyadh release their location. Reports trickled out through family members that many of them were exposed to torture, beatings, floggings and sexual abuse – something the detainees later confirmed in court.

Saudi authorities deny the women were subjected to abuse. They say such claims are designed to denigrate the Kingdom.

Families took to social media to draw attention to the plight of their loved ones. Information emerged that they were to be tried for contacting foreign journalists and diplomats, for rights-related work without permission and, more ominously, for spying.

International pressure paid off modestly when ten of the activists were sent to a regular criminal court, rather than the special state security court that looks into spying or terrorism cases under a recently minted special anti-terrorism law and often metes out sentences that include beheading by sword. Still, international rights groups reported that the women were denied legal representation and were not informed of the charges until late in the proceedings.

In March this year, authorities conditionally freed three of the detained women on bail, ordering them to report back to court for future hearings. Then, in May, five more were released temporarily. At least ten remain behind bars.

Coupled with the controversy over the treatment of female rights defenders came a series of high-profile cases of young Saudi women escaping the conservative Kingdom. As MbS touted his mass entertainment programme as evidence of domestic change, more young Saudi women, including then 18-year-old Rahaf Mohammed, sought asylum overseas, claiming fear for their lives.

Conflicting signals in Mohammed Bin Salman’s policy towards domestic social change and women’s rights reform appear to be mainly about control

In February, state security produced a video likening runaway women to operatives who work for ISIS in Iraq and Syria. But despite official efforts to contain the phenomenon, 2019 has so far seen the highest number of women flee the country. Observers say the phenomenon is enabled by social media, which means more young Saudis are able to see through the Kingdom’s self-styled domestic reform programme.

While many Middle East analysts have struggled to explain the conflicting signals in MbS’ policy towards domestic social change and women’s rights reform, it appears to be mainly about control.

Annelle Sheline, a fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy in Houston, Texas, notes for example that prominent activist Hatoon al-Fassi was not imprisoned for posting a photo to Twitter of her obtaining her driver’s licence. Rather, she was imprisoned for appearing to claim victory a bit too soon after she was quoted as suggesting that ‘public pressure’ brought down the driving ban.

The sense in official circles is that the appearance of succumbing to domestic pressure would embolden the public to request more rights, which could eventually threaten the House of Saud’s 90-year grip on power.

Another explanation for the policy contradiction is that MbS, who overstepped his turn in line to the throne, needs to build up his credentials and demonstrate to his wary subjects that he alone can deliver. Sheline says: ‘By portraying himself as solely responsible for the current changes, MbS has elevated his subjects’ expectations of him, possibly beyond what he will be able to achieve.

Regardless of MbS’ inability to forge a uniform policy and send a coherent message, the perseverance of Saudi women activists behind bars and the spike in runaway cases demonstrate that – unsurprisingly – glitzy weekend outings, pop music or trips to the cinema will not quench Saudi women’s thirst for concrete rights and liberties.

Emad Mekay is the IBA’s Middle East Correspondent. He can be contacted at emad.mekay@int-bar.org