The New York Times
May 25, 2018
Since rising to power as the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman has cultivated a reputation as a savvy young reformer, dragging his hidebound country into the modern age with a new vision.
Much of his focus has been on economic change, but the prince, a 32-year-old son of the Saudi king, has also promised more enlightened social policies, including for women, and drawn praise for this in the West.
In just a few weeks, on June 24, Saudi Arabia is set to lift the longstanding ban on women drivers, putting into effect the most visible social reform that Prince Mohammed has championed.
All to the good, right? Not so fast. Over the past two weeks, the prince reversed course, unleashing and then expanding a crackdown on the very activists who had promoted the right of women to drive.
The government rounded up an initial group of activists and then after an international uproar, redoubled its efforts. At least 11 people, mostly women but also a few men, have now been arrested and interrogated without access to lawyers. One woman was said to have been held incommunicado.
Saudi prosecutors have not disclosed the names of those arrested or the charges filed against them. But news reports said the list includes one of Saudi Arabia’s highest-profile feminists, Loujain al-Hathloul, who had been detained for more than 70 days in 2014 for trying to post an online video of herself driving into the kingdom from the United Arab Emirates.
Late Thursday, Amnesty International reported that Saudi authorities had released four of those arrested, but Ms. Hathloul apparently was not among them.
Saudi analysts say the reversal is a reflection of Saudi politics and the prince’s desire to portray the lifting of the driving ban as a gift of the monarchy to Saudi women rather than a concession to international or domestic pressure.
But the crackdown also raises doubts about the prince’s commitment to women’s equality and freedom of movement. Pro-government media outlets publicized photos of the detained activists and accused them of being traitors, a shocking attack on a group whose only apparent offense was peaceful protest. They should be released immediately.
The episode also calls into question Prince Mohammed’s ability to deliver on his promises to bring fundamental change to a patriarchal society where men exert legal control over women.
The clerical hierarchy that administers Saudi Arabia’s ultraconservative version of Islam, known as Wahhabism, opposes allowing women to drive and other proposals to soften Saudi culture and religion that are part of Prince Mohammed’s plans.
If Prince Mohammed cannot take the heat for lifting the driving ban, one can only imagines how much harder it will be for him to deliver on tougher promises. Chief among them is getting rid of the guardianship law, which says that every woman must have a male guardian — husband, father, brother, even a son — who can make critical decisions on her behalf, including applying for a passport, travelling outside the country, studying abroad on a government scholarship and marrying.
This is not the first time Prince Mohammed has undermined the reformist credentials on which he is trying to build a new image of his country. Last year, he oversaw the arrest of dozens of writers, intellectuals and moderate clerics who were seen as critics of his foreign policies.
Prince Mohammed also engineered the detention of about 200 wealthy princes and businessmen, forcing them to surrender significant amounts of their wealth, in exchange for their freedom in a questionable anti-corruption campaign.
By raising doubts about the kingdom’s commitment to human rights and the rule of law, such behaviour is unlikely to be attractive to the foreign companies the prince is wooing to invest in his country.
Then there’s this: Studies show that economies that exclude half the population, which is to say women, can’t reach their full potential. It will be impossible for Prince Mohammed to legitimately claim the reformist mantle and achieve his economic goals as long as women are prevented from taking their full and rightful place in Saudi Arabia’s future.