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Internal repression in Saudi Arabia: Where's the West?

Internal repression in Saudi Arabia: Where's the West?
7 min read
06 September, 2022
Analysis: Amid a draconian crackdown on dissent and civil society activism in Saudi Arabia, realpolitik is triumphing over moral or ethical concerns for Western governments.

Saudi Arabia’s 37-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) is currently emboldened and confident. Since December, the American, British, French, and Turkish heads of state and government have met with MBS in the Kingdom.

In July, the Crown Prince visited the Greek and French leadership in Athens and Paris. Steeped in symbolism, such high-profile visits have highlighted MBS’s rehabilitation several years after Jamal Khashoggi’s murder.

The Russian-Ukrainian war, inflation, high energy prices, and other challenges in a rapidly evolving international environment have led Western leaders to assess that the moral costs of legitimising the de facto Saudi ruler do not outweigh the perceived benefits.

Such major challenges on the international stage have reminded policymakers in the US and Europe of Saudi Arabia’s value as a strategic partner.

Amid a period of intensifying great power competition, Western governments have feared the geopolitical ramifications of Riyadh moving closer to Beijing and Moscow if Washington, London, and Paris were to continue shunning MBS.

To be sure, Biden’s interest in going to the Gulf in July and asserting US influence there had much to do with the White House’s concerns about China and Russia’s growing clout in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states.

A key question is, how will this Western embrace of MBS impact his decision-making both on the international stage and at home? The recent crackdown on dissent and civil society activism within Saudi Arabia is already telling.

Two Saudi women arrested in 2021 were handed long prison sentences last month, leading to much outrage among human rights organisations and activists.

A terrorism court found Nourah bint Saeed al-Qahtani guilty of “using the internet to tear the social fabric” and “violating public order by using social media.” Her 45-year prison sentence marks the longest handed to a Saudi woman for breaking laws governing social media use.

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Earlier in the month, Salma al-Shehab, a PhD student at Leeds University in the UK and a lecturer at Riyadh’s Princess Nourah University, received a 34-year prison sentence. The crimes of this woman, who belongs to Saudi Arabia’s Shia minority, were following and retweeting certain Saudi dissidents on Twitter.

MBS is waging a campaign against basically all forms of activism in the Kingdom, including that which is not political in nature.

Dr Andreas Krieg, assistant professor at the School of Security Studies at King's College London, told The New Arab that the Crown Prince “feels that if you allow any sort of activism, any sort of civil society mobilisation, or any form of dissent even on matters that aren’t political they could potentially become political. So, it’s a complete depoliticisation and a complete demobilisation of civil society that they’re after”.

Although these two women’s draconian sentences made headlines, the Saudi government has recently jailed many other dissenting voices, from liberal secularists to conservative religious figures.

In October 2021, an appeals court in Saudi Arabia upheld a 20-year prison sentence which a counterterrorism court handed Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, an aid worker at the Red Crescent Society, six months earlier. The authorities detained him in March 2018 because of tweets which criticised the Saudi government’s economic policies.

Western governments have feared the geopolitical ramifications of Riyadh moving closer to Beijing and Moscow if Washington, London, and Paris were to continue shunning MBS. [Getty]

In March 2021, Mohammad al-Otaibi, a founding member of the Union for Human Rights, had his sentence increased by three years.

Initially, a Saudi court handed him a 14-year prison sentence for crimes which included putting out tweets deemed “offensive” to the Saudi Kingdom, its ruler, and other Arab countries; “inciting international organisations” against the Saudi government; “adopting the constitutional monarchy project”; and “inciting people to protest”.

Then the following month, the Specialised Criminal Court sentenced human rights defender Mohammad al-Rabiah to six years in prison, followed by a travel ban for an equal length of time, because of his activism on behalf of women’s rights.

Al-Rabiah’s charges included “seeking to disrupt social cohesion and weaken national unity” and “authoring and publishing a book containing suspicious views”.

Charismatic and opinionated Saudis, who have independence from the state and many fans on social media, threaten the government in MBS’s eyes. “He wants anyone with followership in the Kingdom to follow the line of the regime,” Dr Krieg told TNA.

“People with followership should be people who are sanctioned by the regime. Anyone who is not part of the regime, not part of the state, and has independent followership could potentially become a threat in the future.”

Within this context, it is important to see how the Saudi state made examples of these two women. The aim is to deter other citizens in the country from becoming socially or politically active on Twitter without the government’s stamp of approval.

Experts contend that these sentences are related to Biden and other world leaders’ legitimisation of MBS throughout 2021/22.

“The Biden administration tried to justify his goodwill visit to the kingdom on the grounds that he had received commitments ‘with respect to reforms and institutional safeguards’,” explained Dr Stephen Zunes, a professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco, in an interview with TNA.

“What these draconian sentences handed down simply for expressing disagreement with government policies on social media demonstrate, however, is that the US administration was either lying to assuage human rights advocates or it was hopelessly naïve,” he added.

“It’s clear that Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia, his infamous fist-bump with MBS, has clearly emboldened [the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia]. MBS now feels that he has more room to manoeuvre in terms of internal repression because he’s in a stronger bargaining position,” said Dr Nader Hashemi, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver's Josef Korbel School of International Studies, in an interview with TNA.

“Biden effectively has backtracked on all his promises to treat Saudi Arabia as a pariah, to defend human rights, to pursue accountability for Jamal Khashoggi.”

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Reactions from the West

There is hardly any reason to expect Western governments to put any pressure on Riyadh for these lengthy prison sentences as well as other recent cases of the Saudi government cracking down on peaceful dissent.

“We’re seeing a normalisation of MBS and that normalisation comes in spite of the draconian clampdown on civil society in the country,” explained Krieg.

“There’s nothing that MBS has to fear from Western governments. Western governments very much will keep quiet for the time being and even if there’s some Western media coverage on this, this is something that MBS can sustain indefinitely.”

Washington is focused on energy cooperation with Riyadh, coordinating with Saudi Arabia against Iran as nuclear talks progress with no certain outcome, pursuing lucrative opportunities for US firms in Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, and advancing Arab-Israeli normalisation, among other interests.

Standing for human rights and democracy in Saudi Arabia is not the White House’s priority when it comes to Washington-Riyadh relations.

Biden effectively has backtracked on all his promises to treat Saudi Arabia as a pariah, to defend human rights, and to pursue accountability for Jamal Khashoggi. [Getty]

“I don’t expect anything substantial, only rhetoric and noise. The West cannot afford to antagonise MBS. Realpolitik triumphs over any moral or ethical issues,” Dr Madawi al-Rasheed, a visiting professor at the Middle East Institute of the London School of Economics, told TNA.

“MBS is now assured that the US won’t put pressure on him to improve domestic issues such as human rights. He knows that the world needs Saudi oil more than ever and he plays the game of ignoring any critical voices from abroad. Biden sent a message to MBS: namely, you can do anything you like, and you won’t be sanctioned as long as you promise to keep oil flowing,” added Dr Rasheed.

“Perhaps, at most you might see in an obscure State Department briefing a mild statement expressing ‘concern’ over recent arrests in Saudi Arabia,” said Dr Hashemi.

“I would be very shocked if any Western government actually mentions the names Salma al-Shehab and Nourah bint Saeed al-Qahtani. That’s the most that I expect from Western governments and that’s no surprise because for Western governments it’s all about their economic and strategic relationships with Saudi Arabia - nothing more, nothing less.”

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics. 

Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero