On May 15, the Saudi Arabian government arrested a large number of women’s right activists, featuring many of the prominent activists who had advocated for women to be given the right to drive. No official reasons were given at first for their arrests, but the government later said it was because they had been accused of trying to destabilise the country. Many human rights organisations from around the world have condemned the Saudi government’s actions which happen just a few week’s before the driving ban comes to an end.
The Daily Vox spoke to Iyad el-Baghdadi, a prominent human rights activist about the arrests and what they mean for Saudi’s transformation plan.
Why is Saudi Arabia’s crown prince cracking down on women’s rights activists? pic.twitter.com/KavgMbCaKj
— AJ+ (@ajplus) May 26, 2018
The women that were arrested are basically the most prominent pillars of women’s rights activism in Saudi. The list of names keeps getting updated. You can find the list on the website of Al-Qst, an advocacy organisation for human right in Saudi Arabia. The most prominent probably is Loujain al-Hathloul. There is also Doctor Aisha al-Mana. She was actually released. She is an old woman probably 70 years with heart problems. We suspect they let her go because they didn’t want anything to happen to her on their watch. We know additionally of Doctor Hessa al-Sheikh and Madeha al-Ajroush. There is also a number of men being held.
Some of these women are some of the oldest women’s right activists in Saudi Arabia. Some of these women have been defying the driving ban since 1990. These are the godmothers of Saudi activism. As I’ve said previously, they’re in their 50s, 60s, and 70s. At the same time you have figures who are from a newer generation, most prominently is Loujain al-Hathloul who is one of the most outspoken, most well-spoken Saudi women’s rights activist. Also Eman Al-Nafjan, who is also an academic. She’s a linguist professor. She is in her 30s, she is a mother of three. As you can see these people are not rebel rousers. They are all academics. Out of the list, seven have PhDs, seven have doctorate degrees. Even the lawyer who was held is a Harvard educated lawyer. These are basically the creme de le creme of activism. They are basically highly respected people. Loujain al-Hathloul was held after coming back from talking at the UN committee on the prevention of discrimination against women. These are people who are highly integrated with the international community. They are highly well known.
The government’s narrative is that they are traitors. They have been accused of suspicious contact with foreign bodies and for what they call tampering with the religious and national principles of the kingdom. Everyday we see new allegations. The newest allegation is that they have contact with Qatar and that they were plotting with Qatar, and sending and receiving money and recruiting. They even say they are recruiting officials from within the Saudi government, sending support to people outside and inside. Basically to make a story short, they are basically presenting them as traitors. In fact they are running a campaign in newspapers and social media calling them traitors.
As for the most likely reason, this is actually a very well-orchestrated attempt to shut down women’s rights activism in Saudi Arabia completely. In fact, there has been threats made to the families of the women not to speak to the media, and there have been threats made that any other activist or women who expresses solidarity with these women will be arrested or their families will be harassed. As a result, even activists who live outside of Saudi Arabia have shut down their accounts or have gone offline because they are afraid their families will be harassed or harmed.
There is no communication about where they are. Some of them have been held incommunicado including Loujain al-Hathloul. There are no charges brought up. There is no legal transparency at all.
In September 2017, when women were given the right to drive, one of the Princes was very clear that do not think this is the result of your activism, this is gift from the King. The main incentive over here is that the Saudi regime doesn’t want this to be presented as a result of activism. They say you were granted the right to drive, you did not win the right to drive. Because if it is presented as they won, then it means activism works, and it will incentivise activism. In fact, for Dr Aziz Al-Yusuf, someone called the court to ask a question on her behalf and the response was to let them know that you cannot twist the arm of the government.
It has definitely already caused a lot of harm to the Kingdom’s PR but keep in mind the Royal Court has two audiences: they have an internal audience and they have an international audience. So for the internal audience for the people of Saudi Arabia, they want to give a message that do not even think about getting any political rights.
The Saudi Prince is promoting this idea of transforming the kingdom. The reason for the transformation is the Prince and a lot of experts have acknowledged the social, political, and economic realities of the Kingdom are unsustainable. In other words if the Kingdom does not transform, it is heading for trouble. In fact, the International Monetary Fund in 2016 declared that Saudi Arabia would run out cash in five years even though it has very big reserves. Mohammed Bin Salman basically came up with this plan to say we have transform otherwise we will not survive. In order for him to implement his plan, it requires foreign direct investment, bringing international companies and international brands, building an entertainment industry and sector in Saudi Arabia. This is his economic plan. There is also social things on the agenda but the backbone of the plan is economic transformation. This is why when he went to the United States in March he met with a lot of celebrities. He met with Richard Branson, Elon Musk, Oprah Winfrey, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. He even met with Bill Gates. The reason why he did this was to say come and invest in Saudi Arabia. The result of his move to shut down women’s rights activism could be that none of these people will be able to work with them because the reputational cost would be too high. So he might have shot his own plans in the foot.
Part of his plan is to allow more sports activities and to create more of an entertainment sector in the country. He definitely wants to create more sports activities. In fact he recently concluded a 10-year contract with WWE [World Wrestling Entertainment] headed by Vince Mcmahon. He says he wants to allow women to attend sports, it is all driven by economics that more women contribution; more profits.
It’s important to emphasise the profiles of the women and make them household names, to speak about their success, to speak about who they are. They are all very amazing people. They’ve had highly successful careers. So it’s important for people to make them into household names. Just like Malala Yousafzai, everybody knows these women should become household names and everybody should know who they are and what the activism is. The more you know about them, the more you realise how ridiculous the charges against them are. Second of all, it’s important to pressurise the international community and international brands and celebrities to not do business with Saudi Arabia, not to invest in the country until these women are released.
In other words we have to make it clear for Mohammed Bin Salman that if he wants his Saudi transformation plan to work, he has to release these women.
Saudi Arabian influence in the world has been very negative. We speak about Wahhabism, we speak about extremism, we speak about export of sport politics, we speak about corruption scandals that cross many continents, and we speak about their intervention in politics in many different countries around the world. Peace and stability in Saudi Arabia is related to peace and security in the rest of the world. It is also one of the oil-rich regions of the world which means that instability over there will be very bad all over the world. Human rights are the best guarantee of safety and stability. It’s not disconnected from that. If this situation escalates, it means Mohammed Bin Salman’s transformation plan fails, and if it fails it means enormous amount of instability is about to hit Saudi Arabia and if instability hits Saudi Arabia, it’s going to hit the rest of the world.
In other words let me give you this line: the Saudi transformation plan needs to be saved from Mohammad Bin Salman.
The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.