Ever since last year’s palace coup in Saudi Arabia left Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, commonly known as MBS, in control of every important arm of the state, his promise of reforms has had many in the international media putting a new face on the kingdom.
As the global media were busily churning out “good news” stories of Saudi women preparing to take the wheel, it begs the question why the government choose to arrest 10 activists, seven women and three men, accusing them of being traitors and colluding with unspecified foreign powers to “destabilise the kingdom”.
“Unfortunately, this is not the first instance where human rights activists, and any political dissent is linked to a national security threat,” points out Kareem Chehayeb, Saudi Arabia researcher at Amnesty International.
“We have seen cases where people are arrested simply for tweeting criticisms of Saudi Arabia policy, and, of course, this plays a huge role in stifling any form of human rights activism dissent and any form of expression association assembly in the country,” says Chehayeb.
Those activists have been under the gun ever since last September when the crown prince’s father, King Salman, announced the driving ban was coming to an end.
[The arrests of activists] reveal the true face of the Saudi patriarchal totalitarian regime, where rights are granted by royal decrees, not when it’s demanded by activists.
Not surprised by the recent arrests, journalist Hana al-Khamri of Yemeni Salon, says that during last year’s announcement, “[On] the same day, ironically, they called women’s rights activists and they asked them to remain silent, resulting of many women’s rights activists being condemned into silence, de-activating their Twitter account or stopping tweeting.”
The narrative now emerging around this story seems at odds with the one Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had managed to create since becoming the presumptive heir to the Saudi throne last year.
“Even the PR machine of the kingdom is having a difficult time defending such a decision,” says Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi.
The Saudi government pays millions of dollars to US public relations firms to burnish its image through the news media, to global policymakers and the public. They’ve painted MBS as a moderate reformer who is tackling corruption and “extremism” in his country.
“Every country wants to have a good image,” explains Khashoggi. “But to depend only on PR companies and promises, this is short lived. The arrest of those women activists is proof of that. The moment the news came out, all that image is gone. And now, everybody is talking about, again arrests, lack of political freedom in Saudi Arabia. So, basically, what will fix the image of Saudi Arabia is action on the ground.”
Hana al-Khamri, writer, Yemeni Salon
Josh Wood, journalist
Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi writer
Kareem Chehayeb, Saudi Arabia researcher, Amnesty International
Source: Al Jazeera