It is still possible to protest in Saudi Arabia

It is still possible to protest in Saudi Arabia
A group of exiled opposition figures are organising small-scale, anonymous protests in Saudi Arabia, with videos emerging of citizens mocking the new crown prince, reports Robert Cusack.
6 min read
21 September, 2017
Protests have frequently broken out in the country's eastern, Shia-majority, region [AFP]

On Friday 15 September, dozens of anonymous Saudi men sent encrypted videos of themselves honking their car horns and criticising the new crown prince of Saudi Arabia.

Organising themselves under the hashtag #حراك_١٥سبتمبر t[15th September movement], the activists sounded their horns in alternate-length periods in a Morse code-like pattern - representing the phrase "dub dasher" [meaning "chubby thug"] - a popular nickname in Saudi Arabia for the new crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman.

A statement by the anonymous group of organisers behind the videos, "the movement of the two holy mosques",  said they represented "everyone worried about the country's resources - who thinks they are being squandered in the pockets of a small class of people" - referring to the royal family.

This Friday, many more have said they intend to join the small act of disobedience in its second week.

One of the architects behind Friday's protest is Ghanem al-Dosari, a Saudi dissident living in exile in London. Dosari is the owner of the 'Ghanem Show', a YouTube channel which has clocked up more than 14 million views. He was also behind the video of a Saudi prince beating a young man that went viral.

Historically, even the idea of mass protest and disobedience in Saudi Arabia has been considered impossible. Speaking in an interview with The New Arab on Wednesday, Madawi al-Rashid, a member of Saudi Arabia's opposition, spoke of the bleak state of political dissent in Saudi Arabia.

"Anyone who has tried to criticise the regime on Twitter has ended up in prison," she said.

According to al-Rashid, a professor at the London School of Economics, opposition in Saudi Arabia has always been entirely disorganised because society is so disparate and spread apart.

"There is no clear and open opposition in the country - only abroad," she said.

"There are voices, but they do not want to appear at the moment; so they try to stay secret to protect themselves."

The shutdown

Saudis love Twitter - some 40 percent of Arab Twitter users reportedly come from Saudi Arabia - yet earlier this month a dissident member of the royal family warned that the microblogging service would soon be banned within the kingdom.

"Twitter to be blocked on 2 October," tweeted Faris bin Saud.

The tweet sparked the trending hashtag #ايقاف_تويتر_في_السعوديه (banning_Twitter_in_Saudi), triggering a backlash of shock among many social media users.

In the past month, hundreds of social media users, on top of dozens of clerics and, most confusingly, around thirty judges have found themselves locked up without charge.

Read more: More Saudi public figures arrested in total clampdown on free speech 

The state-owned Saudi Press Agency said those arrested had acted "for the benefit of foreign parties against the security of the kingdom and its interests... in order to stir up sedition and prejudice national unity".

Among those arrested was the software entrepreneur and social media star Essam al-Zamel, who had tweeted veiled criticism of the plan to float part of state-owned oil giant Aramco on the stock market. These tweets were subsequently deleted, but the message was clear - do not disagree with the state.

The arrests coincide with the ascension of the new de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad bin Salman, who is rumoured to be crowned king within weeks. Bin Salman rose to power only three months ago, placing his own uncle and several of his close relatives under house arrest along the way.

The road to power for Saudi Arabia's new autocratic leader - the man behind Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen and diplomatic crisis with Qatar - has not been clean. Staggering numbers of alleged opponents have ended up in prison.

The highly popular cleric, Sheikh Salman al-Awdah, was arrested on September 9, just days after he welcomed reports that Saudi and Qatari royals had sat down for discussions.

"May God harmonise between their hearts for the good of their people," Awdah tweeted to his more than 14 million followers.

Riyadh has always imprisoned its dissidents: the freedom of the press is a laughable concept here and defamation is a serious criminal offence. But the decision to imprison members of the judiciary was perhaps the most revealing.

Amnesty International has accused the Saudi judicial system of carrying out "unfair" trials with arbitrary sentencing guidelines. The right to a fair trial in Saudi Arabia does not ultimately exist and it is precisely through the courts that the royal family exerts its power. It would be reasonable and sensible to keep these sheriffs happy - yet this has not been the case.

"These apparently politically motivated arrests are another sign that Mohammad bin Salman has no real interest in improving his country's record on free speech and the rule of law," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

"[Saudi Arabia's] alleged efforts to tackle extremism are all for show if all the government does is jail people for their political views."

Mohammad bin Salman sold himself as an alleged reformer who would modernise Saudi Arabia's economy and liberalise society - yet in his first months of power he has clamped down on any and all form of protest and silenced even the quietest critical voices.

Is protest still possible?

Watch: Saudis in rare protest against the country's
crown prince [click to enlarge]

Despite this crackdown, the anonymous videos and encrypted messages have continued to flow.

And behind the facade of ostentatious wealth that Riyadh projects to the world lies a huge proportion of its population who are impoverished, facing sky-high unemployment and little to no infrastructure development.

Rock-bottom oil prices - a Saudi ploy designed to destroy the United States' shale mining corporations - have hit the economy hard and Mohammad bin Salman's plans to revive and modernise the country have been criticised for not going far enough.

In short, the outlook is bleak. Around 2.5 million of Saudi Arabia's 10 million foreign workers are expected to jump ship by the end of 2018.

Yet even if economic instability did lead to further organised protest, or even uprisings, the reaction is likely to be swift and hard.

A popular uprising in Saudi Arabia's Shia-majority town of Awamiya was brutally suppressed over the summer, with the army eventually sending in tanks in response.

The popular Shia cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, was executed in 2015 after he rallied thousands in protests during the popular uprisings of 2011 linked to the Arab Spring. At least 51 people were killed by the authorities in a violent backlash.

With these numbers in mind, it would appear that protest in Saudi Arabia is still possible, but one can expect the authorities' response to be brutal, violent and severe.

"In my opinion, it does not matter who governs Saudi Arabia," said Madawi al-Rashid.

"They hold power and they will remain in power through detention and supression."

Follow Robert Cusack on Twitter: @rob_cusack