On his recent high-profile tour of the United States, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, met with executives from Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Disney, Warner Bros. and Lockheed Martin, among others, journeying from Wall Street to Silicon Valley championing his modernization plans to “unlock the potential of the Saudi people.”
The promise of the 32-year-old Saudi leader to reform the hidebound kingdom impressed many. But a month later, he is locking people up rather than unlocking their potential. Last week, Saudi authorities detained at least seven people, five women and two men, who had been advocates for the right of women to drive. Giving women equality they have long been denied is something that the crown prince supports and is popular among the younger generation of Saudis who have chafed under the sharp restrictions imposed by religious authorities in the past. Effective next month, women will have the right to drive, and MBS, as the crown prince is known, has received global approbation for that decision.
So why are the advocates of a basic liberty that MBS has embraced being arrested and vilified in the Saudi press and online? The answer is not entirely clear. It could be that he is responding to a backlash from traditional elements at home. Or it could be that the crown prince is determined not to permit any real flowering of freedom. He wants to rule without so much as a whisper of criticism. This has been his record in office so far and was certainly the suffocating practice of the monarchy in the past.
The latest detentions include Loujain al-Hathloul, one of Saudi Arabia’s most high-profile feminists. As Loveday Morris of The Post reports, in March she was stopped in Abu Dhabi, where she was studying for a master’s degree, forcibly seized, flown to Saudi Arabia and put in prison. Released a few days later, she was warned not to say anything on social media. Now she is detained again. Is MBS trying to use prisons to silence Hathloul and other women, to prevent them from making further demands? They are being accused of “suspicious contact with foreign parties” and undermining the “security and stability” of Saudi Arabia. Their real “crime” seems to be speaking out. MBS may be emboldened by the fact that the Trump administration has offered Saudi Arabia unqualified support and has barely noted the arrests.
Human Rights Watch reported on May 6 a dramatic increase in the number of Saudis detained for more than six months without referral to courts, up to 2,305, compared with 293 people four years ago. The crown prince seeks to modernize the kingdom but seems not to recognize the essential role of freedom in a modern society. You cannot deny people liberty and then expect them to flourish.
(This article was published in The Washington Post on May 22.)