The dark side of Saudi Arabia's reform campaign became apparent last week when 10 activists, mostly women's rights campaigners, were arrested as the Saudi media denounced them as "traitors." The clampdown comes just weeks ahead of the kingdom's much-publicized June 24 lifting of its prohibition on women driving.
The arrests were widely condemned by Western human rights organizations. But even supporters of the kingdom were taken aback by the move.
"It's a very surprising development," said Ali Shihabi, founder of the Arabia Foundation, a Washington think tank close to the Saudi leadership. "Mistakes are inevitable, and this sure looks like one."
So far, the State Department has made no comment about the activists' arrests.
Three generations of activists were targeted, including Loujain al-Hathloul, a 28-year-old social media figure; Aziza Al-Yousef, a 60-year-old mother of five; and Eman Al-Nafjan, a university professor and popular blogger.
Also arrested was Madeha Alajroush, a psychotherapist in her mid-60's who was part of a group of 40 women who mounted the first challenge to Saudi Arabia's driving ban from a Riyadh parking lot in 1990.
The unprecedented style of the arrests — including naming and shaming the women, who ordinarily would have been asked to report to authorities rather than being arrested at their homes — suggests Saudi Arabia is planning for trials and more arrests to keep activists in line, says Kristin Smith Diwan, a scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
"They were taken from their homes," she says. "It's a relatively new way of imposing order in Saudi Arabia, as is the quick willingness to name these women. I think the way they were publicly shamed speaks to a new Saudi Arabia, to get society behind the moves the government has taken."
The crackdown comes at a time when Saudi Arabia's powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has portrayed himself as a revolutionary leader determined to drag his country into modernity. Saudi women applauded when the 32-year-old prince, known as "MBS," expanded women's rights last year, by allowing women to enter the military for the first time and opening some cultural and sporting events to women. He also reined in the country's religious police, who enforce strict rules of public behavior that fall most heavily on women.
"The vehemence with which these activists are being attacked is very surprising," said Gregory Gause, a professor at Texas A&M University. "The campaign certainly takes the bloom off the rose of the crown prince's efforts to portray himself as a champion of improving the position of women in Saudi society."
Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi writer in self-imposed exile in the United States, said the arrests reveal the strategy of the young crown prince, who appears to have consolidated enormous power.
"It's a war on activism," he says. "He wants the people to step aside and accept what he is giving them and he will lead them into the future."
When the government first announced it was lifting the driving ban last September, activists and bloggers were warned — through targeted calls from people they believed were from the government — not to speak to the media or post on social media about the lifting of the ban. Many went silent after the warnings, fearing they and their families could be subject to travel bans, a punishment the government uses to deter dissent, say Saudis who don't want to be named out of fear of government reprisals.
After last week's roundup of the driving activists, a government statement said the arrests were for "suspicious contacts with foreign entities" and offering financial support to enemies overseas, without further elaboration.
"This doesn't make sense because many of the people had basically been keeping quiet over the past year," said Kristian Ulrichsen of Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy. "They could have been powerful ambassadors for the new Saudi Arabia. Instead, they are being branded as traitors. I think it might mask a deeper underlying struggle within Saudi itself."
Though the style of arrest was unusual, it is not the first time that Saudi dissidents have been arrested, as the crown prince consolidated power after his father King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud designated him as his heir in June 2017. Late last year, there were high-profile arrests of prominent business elites and members of the royal family, who were held captive at the Ritz-Carlton Riyadh on corruption charges. An earlier crackdown targeted dissident clerics and activists.
But the latest arrests and their timing have raised more questions than answers for Saudi watchers.
"Has MBS realized that he can't go too far too fast?" asks Ulrichsen. "Are these arrests just the tip of a much bigger iceberg where, as with everything else, 95 percent is below the surface? It could point to the limits of change."
"It's a mistake to arrest these women," said Bernard Haykel, professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University. "It might be an overreaction to please the traditionalists, as we come to the date of women being allowed to drive."
But "unless there is ironclad evidence against these women," Haykel warns, the arrests and trials "do not inspire confidence in the West that the country is headed in the right direction."
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
In Saudi Arabia, women are getting ready to take the road for the first time. A ban on driving is going to be lifted on June 24. But as that date approaches, as many as 11 activists who had campaigned for the right to drive have been jailed. Saudi media launched an unprecedented campaign branding these women as traitors. The roundup targeted high-profile activists across three generations. These detentions are seen as a widening crackdown on perceived critics of the government, and they've cast a shadow over recent easing of social restrictions pushed by the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. NPR's Deborah Amos has been following all of this, and she joins us. Hey there, Deb.
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Good morning.
GREENE: So who's been arrested here?
AMOS: You know, these are names that are well-known in the kingdom, almost a dozen so far, as you said, according to human rights organizations, including two men. Some are professors at state-run universities. One is the author of a popular blog. Madeha al-Ajroush, now in her 60s, was also detained. She took part in the first protest movement in 1990, when nearly 50 women dismissed their drivers and they drove out of a Riyadh parking lot. All of them were arrested. They lost their passports. They lost their jobs.
But it's not just the arrest this time, it's how they were arrested - at home by forces from state security. And these people are usually involved in terrorism arrests. The Saudi press has named and shamed them. That is highly unusual. So next month, when Saudi women are finally permitted to drive for the first time, those who did the most to advocate for the cause will be behind bars.
GREENE: What is going on here? I mean, we're just a little more than a month after Saudi Arabia's crown prince toured the U.S. pushing this whole new vision of transformation - right? - saying he's a revolutionary and wants to bring Saudi Arabia into the modern world. How does this all square?
AMOS: Yes. You know, some of Saudi's most ardent defenders have been shocked by this roundup and the media campaign. But there is a pattern. The first roundup came last year for religious leaders who were critical of this power shift in the kingdom when the crown prince was named by his father to be next in line for the throne. Then, you remember, there were detentions of these rich businessmen and princes. They were jailed for months in a five-star hotel in the capital. Then the Saudi leadership said it was a crackdown on corruption. But this latest series of arrests, this is a little bit different. These women have international support. They're well-known activists. And these charges of treason with no detail has raised a lot of international alarms.
GREENE: Well, and does all of this mean that that the crown prince's reforms that he pitched everywhere are derailed?
AMOS: They aren't derailed, but this is a public relations disaster. And it may be that we are looking at the limits of change in the country. It is true that the crown prince did open things for women. They can now join the army. They were allowed to attend sporting events and cultural events. But this is not liberal reforms in this kingdom. This is still an autocratic system. It's a royal system. And the idea, say Saudi watchers, is the crown prince gives, that he doesn't really want anyone to take credit for these openings that he's giving, and he's been very tough with these women.
GREENE: NPR's Deborah Amos for us this morning. Deb, thanks so much.
AMOS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.