How an imprisoned Saudi princess came to represent Mohammed bin Salman's greatest fears

How an imprisoned Saudi princess came to represent Mohammed bin Salman's greatest fears
Comment: Under Mohammed bin Salman's rule, it is unimportant whether those detained have committed a crime, questioning his vision is enough to see you imprisoned, writes Alainna Liloia.
5 min read
20 Apr, 2020
Princess Basmah went missing after attempting to leave Saudi Arabia in 2018 [AFP]
The Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman continues to find himself in the global media spotlight for all the wrong reasons, while those who dare to question his vision or threaten his power, are consistently turning up in jail - or worse

The latest in what seems like an endless stream of scandals surrounding the Saudi crown prince made headlines last week when the official twitter account of Princess Basmah bint Saud bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud revealed that she is being detained without charge in a prison in Riyadh, and called on her uncle King Salman and cousin Mohammed bin Salman to release her. 

The tweets from Princess Basmah's account stated that her health is deteriorating in the high-security prison where she is being held and that she is currently in need of urgent medical care. 

The reasons surrounding the arrest of the Saudi princess are murkier than ever, with speculation about royal family disputes, issues of inheritance, and the princess' human rights advocacy all cited as possible reasons for her detainment. Yet, reason rarely dictates who is punished under the rule of Mohammed bin Salman, who responds with severity and cruelty to anyone he perceives to threaten his image or the vision of Saudi Arabia he strives for. 

Like Princess Basmah, many of MbS' victims have been women who speak out about human rights and advocate for reform. Women activists have been particularly vulnerable to the crown prince's repressive measures for their bold resistance and calls for reform. 

Read more: Missing Saudi princess pleads for royal family to release her from prison

Whether ordinary citizens, activists, or members of the royal family, MbS harshly represses and punishes those who criticise him and his policies, or refuse to submit unequivocally to his power and rule. 

The crown prince, who rather ironically brands himself as a progressive reformer, has made it clear that the worst possible crime under his rule is threatening his personal claims to political power or his vision for Saudi Arabia. 

Princess Basmah's disappearance 

Princess Basmah went missing in March of last year when she and her daughter tried to leave Saudi Arabia for Switzerland. According to the princess, the purpose of the trip was urgent medical treatment. However, Saudi authorities accused her of trying to flee the country. 

Princess Basmah is known for her outspoken human rights advocacy. She has repeatedly called for reforms in the kingdom, focusing on women's rights and humanitarian issues. She also advocated for the government to become a constitutional monarchy, and in 2018 called for the kingdom to end its military intervention in Yemen.

His rule is characterised by the silencing of those who pose a threat to him personally or politically

At the same time, the princess always remained supportive of the royal family and never aimed her criticism directly at royal family members.

It is highly likely that Princess Basmah was detained due to her outspoken calls for reform, and the crown prince's fear that she would speak out after leaving the country, and harm his image. It has also been suggested that an internal family dispute related to the princess' sons, or attempts to unfreeze assets from her father, King Saud, led to her detainment. 

Whatever the "real" reason for Princess Basmah's detainment, it is typical of the crown prince's approach to anyone he views as a threat to his personal image or political power. In fact, the apparent mystery surrounding her imprisonment is common in MbS' kingdom, where activists and officials alike are detained without charges for unspoken reasons. 

Under MbS, it is unimportant whether those detained have committed any crime. Rather, his rule is characterised by the silencing of those who pose a threat to him personally or politically and the suppression of all dissent through whatever means necessary. 

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Patterns of repression 

Since King Salman assumed the throne in 2015, the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been aggressively consolidating his power and silencing dissent through crackdowns and arrests of activists. This has included members of the royal family, and senior military and political officials he believed to be plotting against him.

In March, Saudi authorities arrested three princes, including King Salman's nephew Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, on suspicion of plotting against the crown prince. 

Women activists have often been the target of the crown prince's crackdowns, and many of the women activists who fought for the social reforms that the prince has implemented are still in prison to this day. High-profile activist Loujain al-Hathloul, a leader in the campaign for Saudi women's right to drive, has been in prison for over a year, where she has reportedly suffered torture

MbS' silence regarding Princess Basmah's detainment is a familiar approach in his dealings with those who threaten his power, whether personally or politically. The crown prince commonly refrains from commenting publicly on arrests which he himself often initiates. Moreover, those imprisoned are often detained without clear charges or on the basis of charges unrelated to their activism.

The worst possible crime under his rule is threatening his personal claims to political power, or his vision for Saudi Arabia

While some have speculated that MbS did not know where Princess Basmah was being held, this is highly unlikely considering her relationship to the royal family and her high-profile public position. On the contrary, the continued detainment of Princess Basmah fits the usual pattern of MbS' cruel and severe response to those he perceives as a threat to his power and image. 

The crown prince's failure to respond to Princess Basmah's calls for release exposes his cruelty and lack of concern for her well-being, and echoes his silence over the allegations of torture and sexual assault suffered by imprisoned Saudi women activists. 

MbS' silence surrounding the detainment of Princess Basmah, and Saudi women activists such as Loujain Al-Hathloul, is an incriminating one. It is time the crown prince stopped the charade, and started taking responsibility for the cruel injustices inflicted under his orders.

Perhaps the crown prince is unaware that his continued repression of dissent is harming his image more than dissenters ever could. If MbS' desired image as a progressive reformer matters to him at all, he should release Princess Basmah and the many imprisoned activists suffering under his rule.

Alainna Liloia is a PhD student in Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Arizona. Her research is focused on gender, politics and nation building in the Arab Gulf states.

Follow her on Twitter: @missalainneous

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.