The truth about Saudi Arabia’s “liberalization”

June 15, 2018

Women and men who fought against Saudi Arabia’s driving ban are being arrested. Shireen Akram-Boshar and Khury Petersen-Smith explain what the regime is up to.

LAST MONTH, just weeks before the scheduled date to lift the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia, Saudi officials arrested a number of leading feminists.

The end of the driving ban, which is scheduled to take place on June 24, is heralded as evidence that one of the U.S. government’s most important allies is ushering in a more liberal society, with less autocratic rule and greater freedom for women, all under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

Bin Salman, who took over as the premier of the kingdom last fall, has cast himself as the only person who can bring progress to Saudi Arabia. The truth, however, is that feminists, socialists and other activists in Saudi Arabia have been working tirelessly — and independently of the monarchy — to fight for women’s rights.

If it wasn’t already clear that the monarchy isn’t a vehicle of social change, but an opponent, the state has arrested some of the very activists who helped win the right for women to drive — while taking credit for that milestone.

Feminist and human rights activist Azizah al-Yousef
Feminist and human rights activist Azizah al-Yousef (Wikimedia Commons)

In a series of arrests that began on May 15 and continued through the second week of June, the state has targeted at least 17 well-known activists at the forefront of the struggle for women’s rights in the kingdom.

Those arrested include prominent feminists and public figures like blogger and activist Eman al-Nafjan, who has written about organizing driving campaigns in publications like the Guardian, and Azizah al-Yousef, a retired university professor and opponent of male guardianship laws as well as the driving ban.

Several male activists have also been arrested, among them Ibrahim al-Mudaymigh, a lawyer who has represented political prisoners for years — including one of the youngest arrestees, Loujain al-Hathoul, in 2014. Al-Hathoul had been arrested three times prior to this May for breaking the driving ban.

Two more women were detained in early June. Mayaa Al-Zahrani was arrested on June 9 after posting on social media in support of Nouf Abdelaziz Al-Jerawi, a writer for a Saudi feminist website, herself detained June 6.

Al-Zahrani posted a message that her friend had prepared in case of arrest, which asked, “Why am I considered an enemy of the state that threatens its security?” referring to the smear campaign that has followed the initial arrests.

In draconian fashion, the state then arrested Al-Zahrani for her social media posts that brought attention to Al-Jerawi and the other feminist activists.


FROM 28-year-old Al-Hathoul to 70-year-old Aisha al-Manea, the activists arrested represent decades of struggle against Saudi Arabia’s control over women’s lives, from the driving ban to the male guardianship system. About half of them have been released since their arrest, but the terms of their release are still unclear.

Saudi state-aligned media have followed the arrests with a smear campaign designed to discredit the activists and pit the Saudi population against them. Official Saudi media called the activists “outside agents,” accusing them of forming “cells” and working to “undermine the security and stability of the kingdom.”

Affiliated papers have ridiculed them as “damned” and boldly stated that “the nation throws out traitors.” One online pro-regime newspaper displayed pictures of the women with “traitor” stamped in red on each of their faces. The headline read, “There is no place for traitors among us.”

The crackdown and smear campaign appear to be aimed at preventing the activists from publicly claiming success for their organizing efforts to bring about an end to the driving ban. The Saudi monarchy intends to take full responsibility for the reform and hopes to convince the population that the crown prince is the only possibility for change and further reforms.

Reforms, the Saudi state wants the feminists to know, can only come from above, and not from mobilizations from below that cast doubt on the ruling class.

The arrests are the latest move by Mohammad bin Salman to tighten his grip on power in the country.

Immediately after ascending to the throne, Bin Salman carried out arrests of his political opponents. While this was framed as targeting “corruption,” the arrests last fall were meant to consolidate Bin Salman’s rule over the kingdom.

The moves that bin Salman made internally coincided with actions he took to continue Saudi Arabia’s aggressive role around the Middle East. In November of last year, bin Salman summoned Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to the kingdom and forced him to resign — though he subsequently became prime minister again.

And bin Salman launched Saudi Arabia’s ongoing, cruel siege of neighboring Yemen when he was Minister of Defense, immediately before taking over as crown prince.

Throughout the region as a whole, Saudi Arabia has escalated its competition with Iran as the two engage in proxy battles for dominance, ramping up sectarian division regionally and nationally to gain an upper hand and crush the dissent that erupted with the 2011 Arab Spring.

The regime does this all in collaboration with its main ally: the U.S. During bin Salman’s tour of the U.S. this spring, the Trump administration announced that it was approving $2.3 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia. When Trump visited Riyadh last year, the two leaders discussed the U.S. selling as much as $350 billion in weapons over the next decade.


BIN SALMAN has postured to the West about being a reformer bringing progress to Saudi Arabia, even as he maintains authoritarianism domestically and violence beyond its borders. He has his supporters in the U.S., with politicians, celebrities and mainstream media celebrating bin Salman as a visionary during his recent visit.

U.S. publications have given bin Salman ample space to position himself as someone who can talk about human rights and easing draconian restrictions in Saudi Arabia, while continuing the country’s role of maintaining a status quo in the Middle East that is friendly to Western powers.

But bin Salman’s words — along with his actions — say otherwise.

In 2016, bin Salman argued that the country was “not ready” for women to drive.

When asked about the small number of women in Saudi Arabia’s workforce in an interview with The Economist that year, bin Salman claimed to speak for women in the country, blaming the attitude of “the woman herself. She’s not used to working. She needs more time to accustom herself to the idea of work.”

Meanwhile, Saudi activists were campaigning in spite of him, their demonstrations flying in the face of his claim that Saudi women were not ready for change.

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The first mobilizations for Saudi women’s right to drive began with a campaign and demonstration in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, almost three decades ago — in November 1990. Aisha al-Manea and 46 other women drove around the capital in a convoy until they were each arrested and detained, fired from government jobs, prevented from traveling and denounced in mosques across the country.

After the start of the Arab Spring in 2011, women were again inspired to protest their position as second-class citizens, and engaged in similar demonstrations in 2011, 2013 and 2014. It is the core of this activist network that the Saudi state has targeted once again over the past month.

We must extend our solidarity with the women and men arrested by the Saudi regime, and call out the hypocrisy of the kingdom as it continues to crack down on activists, feminists and socialists.

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