At a time when the increasingly powerful Saudi crown prince is promoting his openness to economic and some social reforms, al-Nafjan and other activists are fighting for women’s rights that go beyond the lifting of the driving ban. Yet their arrest is a clear sign that further improvements in women’s rights are a long way off.
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Some see in the arrests and smear campaign against the activists an attempt to erase the history of hard-fought grassroots struggle by women demanding reforms. Others have suggested that the arrests were a tactic by the crown prince to appease more conservative elements in Saudi society who may be upset by the erosion of religious authority, including the reining in of the religious police.
The culture wars, including the Valentine’s Day battlefield, suggest that Prince Mohammed’s effort to introduce a degree of greater social freedom and plan to halt Saudi funding of ultra-conservatism elsewhere is likely to have limited effect beyond the kingdom’s borders even though the kingdom with its traditionally harsh moral codes is/was in the Muslim world in a class of its own.
Central to the Saudi deradicalization approach is a process known as munassaha, which roughly translates as ‘counselling’. The process starts in prison and involves clerics engaging with convicts to persuade them that their notions of jihad are based on a misinterpretation of the Koran. However, the Saudi authorities say the success rate of their approach has been as high as 90 per cent
Samah Hadid, the deputy director of Amnesty International, said that most human rights activists in the country were either in prison or on trial, their whereabouts still undisclosed. The others, she added, risk arrest at any time. MBS is clearly remaking Saudi Arabia in his image, while proving to be just as authoritarian as the rulers before him.