Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1396, (31 May - 6 June 2018)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1396, (31 May - 6 June 2018)

Ahram Weekly

No reversal in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia has been arresting and releasing female activists in moves that do not mean the end of the kingdom’s process of reform, writes Haitham Nouri


No reversal in Saudi Arabia
No reversal in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia last week announced the release of four female activists demanding women’s rights in the conservative kingdom after 12 mostly women activists had earlier been arrested.

Among those released was Aisha Al-Manei, a professor of social sciences and one of the first Saudi women to receive a doctoral degree in the US.

Hassa Al-Sheikh, a professor at King Saud University in Riyadh, was also released. Her family are descendants of the founder of Wahhabism, the Saudi version of Islam, Mohamed Abdel-Wahab and key allies of the ruling Al-Saud family.

Madiha Al-Agrush, a psychologist, was also released. All the women are over 60 years of age and were pioneers in demanding the women’s right to drive in Saudi Arabia and the cancelling of male guardianship over women.

In addition to the veteran female activists, the Saudi authorities also released Walaa Al-Shabr, who is believed to be in her late 20s and a nurse in Riyadh. Those still under arrest include Logaine Al-Hazlul, an activist previously arrested for 70 days in 2014 after attempting to drive her car across the Saudi border from the UAE.

All the detainees were exposed to harassment by the security agencies or firing from their jobs, according to international human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

The Saudi authorities have not released any information about the arrests or the release of the activists, announcing only that several unidentified people had been arrested for “suspicious relations with foreign parties”, receiving funding from “hostile elements overseas”, and “attempting to undermine the security and stability of the kingdom”.

Media close to the government published the names of the activists, describing them as “traitors”.

The Saudi Al-Jazeera newspaper published a front-page story entitled “You and Your Treason have Failed” carrying photographs of activists Al-Hazlul and Aziza Al-Youssef, a retired professor from King Saud University who is related to the ruling family.

Both are famous for defending a woman’s right to drive a car in Saudi Arabia.

Ibrahim Al-Medeimegh, described in the media as a “devil lawyer”, was also arrested. The Okaz newspaper quoted Saudi judicial sources as saying that “spying for foreign parties and espionage against the country are major crimes” for which the penalty “could be capital punishment”.

“There is no distinction between male and female in Islamic Sharia” law, the newspaper added.

Human rights groups have gathered information on the arrests and releases from the relatives of the detainees or the detainees themselves from posts on social media. Adwan Al-Ahmari, a commentator in the London-based Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, said “mistakes could be made if we rely on what the relatives of the detainees say.

“If the state is trying to open up and adopt moderate policies on social issues, this does not mean that those with suspicious overseas ties will be allowed to derail the path of reform,” he added.

The arrests were not mentioned on well-known Saudi social media sites, such as Mujtahed or Khat Al-Balda among others. Pro-regime personal sites strongly attacked the female detainees, citing the same arguments as conservatives who do not want to see extensions of women’s rights.

“Saudi Arabia is living through a period of openness unprecedented in its modern history,” said Kristin Diwan, a researcher at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “But society’s mentality remains conservative. And some intrinsically reject [the openness] even if they are defenders of the crown prince’s policies,” in a reference to reforms being introduced by Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman.

Diwan said the arrests were not “a step back from the reform” the crown prince had begun, including the right of women to drive, allowing mixed gender gatherings, and revising the Prophet Mohamed’s hadiths (sayings) that are interpreted by radicals to justify their beliefs. 

She said that targeting the liberal activists could be seen as some regime elements trying to pander to religious figures in order “to position themselves as mediators in parallel with moving forward on the reforms.

“A group of leaders have emerged in the Gulf who are different from their predecessors, but none of them are in power,” Diwan said. “They are relying on their popularity with young people who are not content with religious rhetoric and want jobs, better lives and openness to the world. It is this that the new generation is fighting for,” she added.

The crown prince does not want to appear to be pandering to radical clerics or to be close to Saudi liberals. According to commentator Turki Al-Hamad, a supporter of the reformist policies, “standing at the same distance from both sides is important for the regime.”

However, detentions should not be used as a tool of politics, even if he had earlier supported the wave of arrests of senior princes, businessmen and officials in Saudi Arabia, Al-Hamad said.

Many believe the Saudi government is aiming for economic goals through social openness since it believes this will improve productivity when women participate more in the labour market.

A country that promotes openness is more attractive for investors, Al-Ahmari said.

Others believe the recent openness is part of political vision rejecting all forms of radical ideology.

This was reflected in statements by the crown prince in an interview with the US magazine The Atlantic earlier this year when he said that Riyadh had supported the Muslim Brotherhood during the Cold War as a way of confronting communism. However, he admitted the mistake of supporting radical ideologies after 1979 and said there was a need to combat the regime in Iran through policies of openness.

1979 was a landmark in Saudi Arabia’s history when a terrorist group led by Juhman Al-Eteibi stormed the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the Islamic Revolution took place in Iran, and the former USSR invaded Afghanistan.

These events caused Riyadh to adopt socially conservative policies at home, rallying Islamist elements to confront the Soviets in Afghanistan, creating the Gulf Cooperation Council, a regional grouping, in 1980, and supporting Iraq in its war against Iran in the 1980s.

“Reversing mistakes is just as important as following the correct path,” Al-Hamad said. “Saudi Arabia today is moving away from radicalism, and this is the best guarantee that the reforms will continue and not be reversed.”

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