Abdullah could never have taken his girlfriend to a cafe when they started dating. Attending music concerts featuring American pop stars was also in the realm of the impossible. But in the “New Saudi,” as he puts it, many such freedoms have been bestowed upon the public. There are more avenues for entertainment, mingling between the sexes has become easier among the relatively liberal, and women are allowed to drive.
These small mercies have been sold as major reforms to both Saudis and the West. The Saudi government’s aim is to win over Saudi Arabia’s youth—two-thirds of Saudi Arabia’s population is under the age of 35—and discourage them from challenging the monarchy. It has the additional goal of luring foreign investment to help diversify the economy.
Last week, Saudi Arabia became the first Arab nation to host the G-20, the yearly summit of the world’s top leaders to discuss shared economic, political, and health challenges. King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and his son and crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, had hoped it would usher in a new chapter in their relationship with the global elite since the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, allegedly on the orders of the crown prince. That had caused huge embarrassment and made it harder, at least for Europeans, to justify “business as usual” with the kingdom. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, denied the opportunity for photo opportunities, and the gathering was instead held online.
Among Saudis in exile, like Abdullah, the coveted summit generated mixed feelings. They felt proud that their country, derided as the nation from where most of the 9/11 hijackers hailed, might be becoming more accepted as an influential global power. But there was also palpable anguish that the G-20 leaders merely paid lip service to the cause of their human and political rights.
Arrests and even executions of critics have sharply risen in the last few years, creating an atmosphere of fear among many Saudis. Hundreds have been thrown behind bars, including the prince’s cousin Mohammed bin Nayef, the man who coordinated with the Western intelligence agencies in the battle against al Qaeda and was seen as the West’s bulwark in the country’s establishment. At least four prominent women activists who fought for women’s right to drive, and won, as well as scholars who demanded political reforms have been languishing in prisons for years. Despite the outrage caused by Khashoggi’s killing, 13 writers and activists were imprisoned in April 2019 alone, just six months after his death, according to a report by Human Rights Watch.
Saudis in exile, as well as humanitarian organizations, told Foreign Policy that while with one hand the monarchy has been handing out a few social liberties, with the other it crushed political dissent like never before.
Abdullah said in the new Saudi Arabia a tweet could land an activist, a writer, or anyone who seemed mildly critical of the government behind bars. He fled the country last month and spoke to Foreign Policy on the condition of anonymity. “They don’t like what I say,” he told me on the phone from Europe, “and frankly the risk and stress of living in Riyadh outweighed the desire to speak up.”
Saudi Arabia has always been criticized for its human rights record, but two developments over the last decade have caused a steeper slide into authoritarianism: the Arab Spring and the rise of Mohammed bin Salman as crown prince.
Until the beginning of the Arab Spring, Saudi scholars and activists were tolerated to a certain degree when they discussed institutional reforms, including mention of some form of democracy. That came to a swift halt as demonstrators took to the streets of Cairo, Manama, Tripoli, and Damascus. Lawyers and bloggers were among the first to be rounded up.
As the Arab Spring progressed, the Muslim Brotherhood, the pan-Arab organization propagating political Islam, gained influence and even won elections in Egypt. Local leaders of the Sahwa, the Saudi arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, also spoke up to seek political reforms. This was seen as a threat by the royals, who feared that a similar combination of cosmopolitan liberals and political Islamists might also lead the masses in Saudi Arabia to challenge the monarchy.
Among the leading Saudi scholars to back the uprisings was Salman al-Awdah, who wrote a letter to the government in 2013 and warned of a “sociopolitical explosion” if political reforms were not enacted. He became a victim of a second purge, under Mohammed bin Salman, in 2017.
Lina al-Hathloul, the sister of one of the country’s most prominent women’s rights activists, Loujain al-Hathloul, told Foreign Policy that soon after Mohammed bin Salman was anointed crown prince, old red lines were obliterated while new ones remained unknown. “Earlier we knew not to challenge the royal family and religion, but now we don’t know what the red lines are,” she said from Berlin. Her sister Loujain had been fighting for the right to drive. Her family remains perplexed that the government saw it as necessary to incarcerate someone for the crime of having advocated a reform it had decided to grant.
Loujain al-Hathloul has been on a hunger strike since Oct. 26. Before the G-20, many activists had appealed to the international community to boycott the summit unless Riyadh released political prisoners. But their calls fell on deaf ears, even though one of the themes of the G-20 was women’s empowerment.
Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, said instead of buying the Saudi government’s “whitewashed narrative,” G-20 leaders should have used the summit to stand up for people like Hathloul. “For Saudi authorities, the G-20 summit is critical—it is a moment for them to promote their reform agenda to the world and show their country is open for business,” she said. “Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s real reformers are behind bars.” Michael Page, the deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, added: “Instead of signaling its concern for Saudi Arabia’s serious abuses, the G-20 is bolstering the Saudi government’s well-funded publicity efforts to portray the country as ‘reforming’ despite a significant increase in repression.”
Some changes are real, and Saudi society is clearly struggling to create a new identity, a mix of modern and traditional lifestyles. However, the West should not be afraid of using its considerable leverage as a catalyst for the good in this difficult and often brutal process.