Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

In Saudi Arabia, No Let-up in Brutal Policies Against Dissenters

Saudi Arabia- MBS
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Future Investment Initiative conference in the Saudi capital Riyadh on October 24, 2018. Photo AFP

The list of people facing the death penalty in Saudi Arabia continues to grow. Murtaja Qureiris is just one of them. The 18-year-old was arrested by Saudi authorities in 2014, when he was only 13, for his participation in the 2011 Eastern Province protests during the Arab Spring.

After having spent nearly four years in pre-trial detention and almost 15 months in solitary confinement, he is currently on trial at a terror court on the grounds of belonging to a terrorist organization and committing acts of violence, such as firing at security forces and throwing Molotov cocktails at a police station. He is also charged with marching at the funeral of his brother, who was killed by security forces while taking part in a demonstration.

Protests in Saudi Arabia are punishable under Royal Decree 44/A, a follow-up decree to the 2014 Law for the Crimes of Terrorism and its Financing. However, Qureiris’ case has to be read in the broader context of systematic prosecution of Shia Muslims before the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) on ambiguous grounds for opposing the government, including through peaceful criticism.

Three Saudi clerics are also facing the death penalty. In September 2017, they were arrested on terrorism charges for having ties with Qatar’s royal family and for being connected to the Muslim Brotherhood, which is considered a terrorist movement in Saudi Arabia. Salman al-Odah, Awad al-Qarni and Ali al-Omari may be executed at any moment, according to government sources and one of the men’s relatives interviewed by the Middle East Eye.

Madawi al-Rasheed, an expert on Saudi society, told DW that according to her information, “Saudi courts have not yet handed down the death sentence. But the public prosecutor is clearly considering the death penalty.”

Well known across the Arab world, the three clerics are considered to hold ‘progressive’ views on Islam.

Al-Odah is famous for being in favour of more flexible Sharia legislation, the Islamic law that governs the kingdom. In 2016, he said he opposed criminalization of same-sex relationships. Prior to being arrested, and while Saudi Arabia was in the midst of a diplomatic crisis with Qatar, he tweeted in favour of a rapprochement between the two countries.

Al-Omari is a radio journalist who called for a war on radical Islam and advocated greater gender equality. Al-Qarni, for his part, is a cleric and writer who is considered a ‘moderate’. The three men were extremely influential on social media. Al-Odah, for instance, had more than 14 million followers on Twitter.

On 23 April, the Saudi government executed 37 people on terrorism charges, including ‘adopting extremist terrorist ideologies’. At least one of the dead bodies was displayed on a pole as a ‘deterrent’ to the public.

Saudi Arabia’s attitude to human rights is particularly ambivalent. On the one hand, Riyadh shows signs of increasing openness. On the other, the authorities regularly demonstrate brutal behaviour, as illustrated by the murder in October 2018 of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a regime critic, in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The international community praised Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (also known as MBS) for lifting the ban on women driving in June 2018. However, he then launched a campaign of arrests against women activists who had spearheaded the fight for the right to drive and the abolition of the male guardianship system.

According to three testimonies collected by Amnesty International, the women arrested were repeatedly subjected to torture by flogging and electrocution. One testimony recounted that a woman ‘was made to hang from the ceiling’. It was also reported that interrogators ‘wearing face masks’ subjected another activist to sexual harassment.

Elisabeth R. Myers, a Washington DC-based professor and editor of Inside Arabia, told al-Jazeera that repression in Saudi Arabia “may work in the short run” but in the longer term may “serve the exact opposite purpose by prompting more dissent and sowing more discord and division in society”. According to her, the crackdown on any form of protest may “galvanize a popular movement as we have seen in Algeria or Sudan”.

With the overthrow of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and the protests in Sudan that led to the deposition of Omar al-Bashir, the Saudi regime fears another Arab Spring that could undermine the hegemony of the royal family.

For now, the United States (US) – one of Saudi Arabia’s greatest ally – is condoning the continuation of brutal policies in the kingdom. President Donald Trump issued a statement of support for MBS on 20 November 2018, acknowledging the possibility of the crown prince’s involvement in Khashoggi’s murder while reaffirming the strength of the two countries’ relationship. However, public opinion in the US is slowly turning against MBS as the Saudi-led coalition continues its military campaign in Yemen and the extent of the US arm deals with Saudi Arabia has revealed the US’ true involvement in the conflict.

Protests are also mounting in other countries allied to the kingdom. These include the United Kingdom and France, where human rights organizations, several media and citizens are trying to hold their governments to account for selling weapons to Saudi Arabia that are allegedly being used to target civilians in Yemen.

Yet while some Saudi voices are becoming increasingly vocal in their opposition to MBS succeeding to the throne, he remains hugely popular, in particular among the youth. The emerging entertainment sector, and more generally, the prince’s plan to energize the economy by shifting it away from its reliance on oil exports, are helping to position him as a ‘modern reformer’ in the eyes of young Saudis.

This ‘modernity’ is largely cosmetic, however: a year before Kashoggi’s death, MBS authorized a secret campaign, which includes surveillance, kidnapping, detention and torture, to silence any form of dissent. This not only applies to dissenters in the kingdom but also to critics living abroad, with some of those under surveillance being forcibly repatriated from other Arab countries.

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