Since May 15, the first day of the holy month of Ramadan, the Saudi authorities have detained some of the country’s most prominent and courageous advocates for women’s rights. Those arrested include Saudis who have led efforts to lift the ban on women driving, a 25-year reform demand that the Saudi government finally accepted last year and that comes into effect on June 24. These activists also called for an end to restrictive guardianship laws that allow male relatives to control many of women’s key activities, a reform rejected by the government. The Kingdom’s small community of liberal activists is reeling and struggling to make sense of the events. But the arrest of so many well-known figures seems an ominous sign that the government is determined to wipe out what remains of Saudi civil society.



Those known to be detained include: Loujain al-Hathloul, previously detained for 73 days in 2014 after trying to drive from the United Arab Emirates into Saudi Arabia and again in 2017; Ibrahim al-Mudaimigh, Loujain’s lawyer in related court proceedings; Eman al-Nafjan, a prominent blogger and commentator on Saudi women’s issues who drove in Riyadh in 2011 as part of an organized protest; Aziza al-Yousef, who has participated in right-to-drive protests since the early 1990s and who recently filed a petition with 14,500 signatures calling for an end to the guardianship laws; Aisha al-Manea, Madeha al-Ajroush, and Hessah al-Sheikh, three other long-time activists who took part in the first right-to-drive protest back in 1990; and Mohammed al-Rabea, a friend and supporter of many of the activists. Loujain,[1] Aziza,[2] and Eman[3] have large social media followings. Friends of those detained continue to announce new arrests;[4] this morning news broke that Wala’a Al Shubbar, who was active in a 2016 online anti-guardianship campaign, has been jailed as well.

In contrast to other Saudi women’s rights advocates who have long been close to the government (or have been co-opted recently) and are more cautious in their public discourse, those detained have remained independent and have spoken out for more fundamental reforms than the piecemeal changes seen so far under de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. Specifically, the arrested activists have been vocal about repealing the guardianship system,[5] in which approval from male guardians—fathers, husbands, brothers, or even sons—is required for women to gain a passport, get married, leave prison, or travel outside the country. Last year, a royal decree issued by King Salman sought to end “unofficial” requirements of guardian approval, but left the underlying system unchanged. While such “personal status laws” are a feature of all the Gulf Arab monarchies,[6] Saudi Arabia’s is the most restrictive by almost every measure.



Any hopes that the activists were being brought in only for a brief “consultation” with authorities (that is, a stern warning to curtail their advocacy, followed by release) were soon dashed. Early on May 18, a statement from the Presidency of State Security—a government body created last year that concentrates control of all domestic security services in the hands of the Crown Prince—announced the arrest of individuals for “suspicious contact with foreign agencies” as well as “aiming to undermine the Kingdom’s security, stability and social fabric.”[7] These are very serious allegations that could result in long prison terms.

Support campaigns, accusations, and rumors soon followed on Saudi social media. On Twitter, a hashtag emerged in support of those arrested, #Where_are_The_Saudi_Activists,[8] but was eventually overwhelmed by a hashtag against them, #Agents_of_the_Embassies,[9] promoted by key influencers close to the government and automated bot accounts. “You and Your Betrayals Have Failed!” blazed an updated headline in the daily newspaper al-Jazeerah. “TRAITOR” was splashed across photographs of those detained in a graphic circulated by semi-official news sites such as SaudiNews50. Tabloid paper Okaz likewise ran front-page stories forecasting up to 20 years in prison for the accused,[10] while quoting members of the Kingdom’s Consultative Assembly (an advisory body to the King) denouncing those who pursued “political goals” at a time when the Kingdom was witnessing a “qualitative leap” at all levels—including women’s rights.[11] Stories circulating in Saudi media have suggested that those detained will be charged under the Kingdom’s expansive 2014 counter-terror law,[12] which includes “endangering national unity” and “harming the reputation of the state or its standing” as definitions of terrorism.



These arrests should make clear that under Mohammed bin Salman there is little official tolerance for independent activism on behalf of women’s status or other rights. Only the rulers and selected agents of the state are permitted the freedom to reimagine Saudi society, or to redefine the relationship between ruler and ruled. And even then, the parameters for change appear limited to giving Saudis slightly more freedom to dress as they like, to entertain themselves as they like, or to pursue economic innovation, so long as the pursuit of any political change is left entirely off the table. No matter how welcome the new social freedoms among many Saudis, Mohammed bin Salman’s reforms stop far short of granting rights that would remake Saudis from subjects receiving top-down directives into citizens with voices.

The detained activists showed a willingness to organize among themselves and to be openly critical of the Saudi leadership’s foot-dragging in expanding gender equality. Those arrested—Loujain, Aziza, Eman, and the others—all agree with the social changes underway in the Kingdom. But they have not been content with them, believing that Saudi women still face structural discrimination and other disadvantages under present laws.

Both Eman and Aziza spoke up about women’s freedoms during U.S. President Donald Trump’s visit to the Kingdom last May,[13] calling for an end to the male guardianship system and for an “open dialogue” with the Saudi government about women’s rights. Loujain has garnered significant international media attention for her repeated arrests since attempting to drive from the Emirates into Saudi Arabia in 2014 (including New York Times coverage of her short-lived campaign for a municipal council seat in 2015).[14] Last September, most of the group received threatening calls from the security services, following the much-heralded royal decree that will allow Saudi women to drive, in a ham-fisted attempt to keep them from speaking to the international press. Those arrested represent a small but potentially influential group inside the Kingdom since they are well-connected with international media in a way that not many Saudis are. By helping to keep the issue of male guardianship in the international media, they have sought to make it a priority for next steps for the Saudi government. Evidently, the Saudi leadership does not want these activists to have such agenda-setting power in the future.



Last September, Saudi Arabia already saw the arrest of several dozen preachers and intellectuals under similar official justifications: working for the benefit of foreign parties, stirring up sedition, and endangering national unity.[15] Those detained include prominent clerics Salman al-Awdah and Awad al-Qarni as well as businessman and technology blogger Essam al-Zamil—his arrest seemingly because he was not sufficiently supportive of the Saudi position in the ongoing diplomatic dispute with Qatar. None has been released, which bodes ill for the fate of those detained last week.

There may be something to the notion that Saudi rulers seek to “balance” their repression among various social groups, as some suggested when dissident Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr was put to death in 2016 alongside dozens of Sunni jihadi rebels.[16] Media statements by semi-official sources describe the detained women’s rights activists as “leftist extremists,”[17] referencing past quotations from King Salman that the Kingdom’s actions against (religious) extremism would not be an opportunity for others to promote “moral decay” within Saudi society.

Yet the idea that Saudi Arabia’s leaders have cracked down on these activists out of fear of a conservative backlash against women driving—a defense advanced by some government apologists—is belied by the ferocity and public nature of the denunciations accompanying these most recent arrests, which appears to far surpass even domestic coverage of the September 2017 crackdown. Quietly detaining activists until the media focus on Saudi Arabia around June 24 dies down would have been one thing; arresting and branding them as “extremists” and “traitors” is another altogether.

It is hard to overstate the chilling effect of the arrests and other recent acts of repression on public discourse within the Kingdom, which is already highly constrained. Even in 2010, well before the political rise of bin Salman, barely 15 percent of respondents to an Arab Barometer poll felt they could “criticize government policies without fear.” Last November’s “anti-corruption” proceedings that saw dozens of princes and officials detained in Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton hotel already left many Saudis fearful that any stray critical statement—in public or private—might provoke the government’s ire. Politically sensitive conversations among Saudis now take place with cell phones turned off and left in a neighboring room; text conversations move to ever-more-secure messaging platforms and are wiped ever-more-frequently. The voices silenced last week represented one of the last bastions of on-the-record public criticism of government policy.



Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman seems intent on replicating the example of his close friend and mentor Mohammed bin Zayed,[18] de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates: limited, top-down liberalization to accompany an international image as an “enlightened despot,” but with no toleration of peaceful dissent or reform initiatives from below. In light of the apparent value that the Crown Prince places on support from the United States—and the intensive efforts undertaken by the Kingdom to improve its image among Americans—the least that U.S. officials can do is to demand a full accounting of those arrested now and back in September and to call for their release.[19] The limited social reforms offered by the Kingdom’s latest “modernizing monarch” should not afford him a blank check to entrench Saudi authoritarianism. Governments that cannot tolerate peaceful, independent voices calling for basic rights cannot be trusted to successfully address major social, economic, and political challenges—all of which confront Saudi Arabia in the years ahead.

9. Twitter hashtag: #AGENTS_OF_THE_EMBASSIES
10. Okaz front page
11. Okaz article