Riyadh's token reforms provide political cover for creeping authoritarianism

Riyadh's token reforms provide political cover for creeping authoritarianism
Comment: The Saudi leadership understands the need to play the image game, selling tokenistic women's rights reforms while arresting hundreds of dissidents, writes Bachar Halabi.
7 min read
09 Nov, 2017
Mohammed bin Salman will likely soon be king of Saudi Arabia [Getty]
The issue of women driving has always been a benchmark for those looking to examine Saudi intentions towards reform.

The ban on women driving was always unjustifiable, and gave Riyadh's friends and foes a solid example of the regime's regressive nature.

International human rights organisations and the US state department would start their annual human rights reports on the kingdom referencing the ban, which has caused much embarrassment.

The current Saudi leadership seems to play the image game better than its predecessors. It knows it needs to show the world that it is making progress on women's rights if the international community is to buy "Vision 2030" - Riyadh's modernisation plans.

Hence the royal decree issued by King Salman revoking the ban on women driving represents a step towards this modernisation. It may herald a fundamental and dramatic change in economics and society here.

The end of the women's driving ban is likely to save families billions of dollars, boost industries from car sales to insurance, and reassure investors - most importantly - by delivering on promised reforms that should lure them in.

The overall cost of foreign drivers paid by Saudi households in 2016 exceeded $3.73 billion.

According to Bloomberg, there has been little momentum in the non-oil sector - growth has been stuck at below one percent for a few quarters at least. Moreover, for an economy that is trying to diversify away from oil, the performance of the non-oil sector is still linked to oil prices.

Breaking this link seems to be the main priority of Saudi policy-makers.

Yet it remains important to applaud the huge achievement for Saudi women, for which Manal Alsharif, Loujain Hathloul, Aziza Yousef and Tamador Alyami, to name but a few, have put their lives and their future on the line.

The PR industry

Before the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) - more commonly known as "the Iran deal" - was reached, Saudi Arabia faced a relentless campaign by pro-Iranian spin doctors in Washington, relying heavily on smearing a long-time US ally and Iran's nemesis, mainly highlighting Iran's so-called "progressiveness" in terms of women's rights and governance - when compared with Saudi Arabia.

The fact the nuclear deal was passed into law by both houses in September 2016, with Washington's politicians influenced to a certain extent by these Iran spin-doctors, helped Riyadh learn that public image-making domestically and abroad was more important than implementing real reform or respecting human rights.

After all, Iranians had to persuade the Obama administration of their intentions to halt uranium enrichment and their lack of interest in building nuclear weapons, in order for Washington to sign the deal and for investments to start pouring in.

Yet today, Iran still tests ballistic missiles that can carry multiple warheads and can travel up to 2,000km. 

This prompted Saudi Arabia to step up its long-standing public relations campaign in the US, seeking to oppose the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, paint neighbouring Qatar as a funder of terrorism, and generally portray the kingdom in as positive a light as possible at a time the kingdom is facing many challenges on different fronts.

Bad publicity

For Saudi Arabia, the past few months have been loaded with bad publicity worldwide. The Dutch-Canadian resolution proposed at the UN's main human rights body on how to best document the human rights violations in Yemen prompted the kingdom to threaten other countries, saying if they sent international, independent investigators to war-torn Yemen that could "negatively affect" trade and diplomatic ties.

More importantly, the war in Yemen and the suffering of civilians there has been haunting the Saudi leadership for quite some time - but the idea that they might pull-out or announce the end of operations before at least reaching some sort of a political agreement is far-fetched to say the least.

Since September 9, a crackdown against possible dissent - painted as a campaign on extremism and corruption - has been conducted in the kingdom, leading to hundreds of arrests of people with little in common between them besides being influencers with a large follower base.

Awadh al-Qarni, a traditional Wahhabi figure, Salman Al-Odeh, an influential cleric and a Muslim Brotherhood sympathiser, Hassan Farhan Al-Maliki, an ex-Wahhabi author who now fiercely opposes both Wahhabism and political Islam, Jamal Khashogji, a liberal writer in self-imposed exile after being stopped from writing, and Jamil Farsi, a wealthy businessman and political satirist, all refused to turn their social media accounts into anti-Qatar government propaganda.

Human Rights Watch also issued a 62-page report highlighting institutionalised discrimination against religious minorities and the propagation of hate speech and fatwas against them. The report documents government clerics and others who have used the internet and social media to demonise and incite hatred against Shia Muslims and other minorities who do not conform to their views.

Even in its mostly conservative society, Saudi authorities have infuriated a considerable proportion of citizens - and that might come back to haunt the country's rulers.

A "tactically failing" war, a huge humanitarian bill on the table, a standoff with Qatar that hasn't achieved any of its goals, and the shrinking of the welfare state through cuts to subsidies - reversed due to public uproar and because Mohammed bin Salman did not want his name tied to them.

Saudis became heavily involved in political talk on social media - not favoured by authoritarian regimes - meaning it had become time to depoliticise society and divert its attention towards more nuanced social talk. Hence the lifting of the women's driving ban.

However, the repressive guardianship laws still allow husbands and fathers to retain veto power over whether their wives or daughters can leave the family home unaccompanied. So, technically, woman will be able to acquire a licence and allowed to drive - but a male family member can still stop her from leaving the house.

Saudi Arabia's male guardianship system remains the most significant impediment to women's rights in the country despite limited reforms over the past decade.

With the power-transition battle out of his way, the crown prince seems keen on consolidating power, especially given that he seems wary of anyone connected to the former crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, or any of the old guard.

The shakeup of the Saudi security apparatus in July must be seen through this prism. King Salman decreed the consolidation of the counterterrorism and domestic intelligence services under a new body named the Presidency of State Security, while stripping the Ministry of Interior (previously Mohammed bin Nayef's power-base) of security agencies related to fighting terrorism and financial corruption.

An Orwellian situation was brought in, with Saudi authorities calling on the public to supervise and report on social media activities of fellow citizens, while issuing broad definitions of "terrorist" crimes. This is a dangerous step towards the "securitisation of society", especially that today more than ever, the kingdom's subjects are fiercely debating societal and political issues - and the government wants to keep an eye on that.

In other news that flew under the radar was the decision by the Shura Council to postpone taking up a controversial proposal to merge the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (Haia) with the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Call and Guidance.

Originally, it was a plan widely seen as a move to redesign and redefine the role of the religious police, to curb its powers further. 

The current leadership's bid to alienate itself from Wahhabism, with the ascension of the current crown prince and a promised vision for reform has been entangled with the buildup of Saudi ultra-nationalism, with MBS taking centre stage.

With the shift in the kingdom's core identity being a "work in progress", the country is treading the road of chauvinistic nationalism, where exaggerated patriotism glorifies any decision taken as "historic" while accompanying orchestrated propaganda campaigns stir the people's support.

The recent wave of uproar that appeared on social media after National Day celebrations - which saw women enter football stadiums for the first time ever - indicates that the society remains heavily fragmented between gender and generationally, at a time where Saudis should consider uniting in order to snatch more concessions on the political and civil level.

It also exposed the hollowness of the religious rhetoric that has controlled the public sphere for decades.

Bachar El-Halabi is currently pursuing a second MA in political science at the L'École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales. He also holds an LLM in International Law, and Bachelors in Engineering and Political Science from AUB.

Follow him on Twitter: @BacharZhalabi