The disappearance and forced exile of Saudi Arabian activists

As I have written several times before, the US media has fallen for the public relations campaign carried out by Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) who has assumed great power in that country and whose friendship with Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner seems to have bought him immunity from close scrutiny for the appalling and cruel war his country is waging in Yemen, a war that is being aided and abetted by the US and the United Arab Emirates. MBS’s charm offensive cunningly used the relaxation of some rules (allowing women some freedom to drive and allowing some cinemas to operate) that seemed designed to appeal to western sensibilities while retaining tight control on everything else.

But it appears that even those relaxations are less than what they seem. One example that Sarah Aziza writes about is the harassment and the steady disappearance of women activists like Loujain al-Hathloul who had campaigned for the right to drive, some of whom have been forced into exile.

In 2016, under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi government had embarked on a massive “Vision 2030” campaign for “national transformation,” promising vast social and economic reform, including expanded rights for women. Never before had the government, traditionally yoked to an ultraconservative religious elite, broadcast such a zealous message of reform. Yet at the same time, the government was increasingly censoring civilians of various political and religious persuasions, arresting critical clerics and moderate journalists alike, and placing increasing pressure on state media to publish pro-government stories, sources inside the Saudi press told The Intercept.

For al-Hathloul, this hope would be short-lived. Beginning on May 15, 2018, just weeks before the end of the ban on female drivers, the government began a series of arrests targeting prominent activists. Al-Hathloul was among the first to disappear into custody, along with Eman al-Nafjan and Aziza al-Yousef, fellow advocates for human rights and reform. Simultaneously, photographs of the women began to circulate on local media and online, accompanied by state accusations of treason and collusion with foreign governments. A hashtag, #AgentsofEmbassies, went viral, as did speculations that al-Hathloul was a Qatari operative intent on harming the Saudi state.

At the end of June, the world applauded as women in the kingdom claimed their right to drive for the first time. Meanwhile, al-Hathloul and her colleagues remained incommunicado. Just three days later, Hatoon al-Fassi, a prominent professor of women’s history and longtime advocate for reform, was taken into custody on unknown charges. The following month, two more well-known female activists, Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sadah, were arrested, despite having largely halted their organizing and online activities after witnessing the crackdown on their peers.

Zayadin said the clampdown has been unlike any seen before in Saudi Arabia. “The scope and severity of these crackdowns is really unprecedented,” she said. “Even people outside the kingdom are scared to speak their mind. All the momentum for a grassroots reform movement that was built over recent years has been halted.”

As a result, less than two years into the government’s 24-year plan to reform the kingdom, positing it as a progressive peer among the world’s liberal democracies, the frontiers of Saudi dissent have shifted almost completely abroad.

But going into exile does not mean safety as we see with the disappearance of a Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi after he entered the Saudi Arabian embassy in Istanbul Turkey to renew his visa.

On Tuesday, Khashoggi, a Saudi national and Washington Post columnist, entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul to pick up documentation to get married. His fiancee, who was waiting outside, told the New York Times that he had not emerged hours later, and he has not been seen since.

Khashoggi, an former insider who became a staunch critic of Saudi Arabia’s new crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has been living in self-imposed exile over concerns that he would be arrested during the prince’s crackdown on dissent. Saudi authorities have denied detaining him, but the Turkish government said earlier this week that he was still in the building.

MBS seems intent on crushing any criticism of himself and there are fears that Khashoggi has been quickly spirited away to Saudi Arabia before the alarm could be raised in Turkey.

The Trump administration and the US congress and much of major US media, while willing to throw its weight around with other countries, always acts subservient to Saudi Arabia. The disappearance of Khashoggi, because he is a columnist for the Washington Post, has caused some to take a second look at the benign attitude taken towards the Saudis.


  1. jrkrideau says

    The US media seems to have the analytic ability of a drugged tapeworm when it comes to anything more than 5km off-shore from the USA. They are not that good internally either but, in the international forum, they seem to be willing to swallow anything the Government or various appendages such as Kuchner and Mohammad Bin Salman tosses them.

    Truly, they are following the great tradition of the reporters who covered Iraq lies. Mobile biological weapons plant? Check. Yellowcake? Check. Aluminum piping? Check. Scuds? Check. Iran as the backer of Al Quaeda? Check. They can believe more impossible things than the White Queen.

    Do they ever do anything independently? Like maybe, gasp, visit the Middle East? Or, even read a UN or Amnesty International report about the genocide in Yemen? No, of course they don’t.

    Mohammad Bin Salman is out to create a tyranny and he seems to be doing okay at the moment though I think he actually is too much of a general f*--up to pull it off in the long run. That Harari fiasco, alone, made him look like a fool.

    This Khashoggi incident looks like another screw-up. I just hope Khashoggi makes it out alive.

    Mohammad Bin Salman is an equal opportunity oppressor though. There are reports of some of the more fundamentalist Saudi clergy disappearing as well. If anything, they are more of a danger to him than some minor human rights reformers such as the women who have disappeared.

    He, also, seems to be following the family tradition of persecuting the Sh’ia in the Eastern Province and helping suppress the Sh’ia in Bahrain. Iran must be watching this with great interest.

    Culturally and religiously, the Sh’ia in both the Eastern Province and Bahrain have much more in common with the Iranians on the other side of the Gulf than they do with that Sunni “bunch of desert camel jockeys” in far-away Riyadh.

  2. says

    The US media are owned by authoritarians and oligarchs; they have already been trained to grovel before the feet of their masters. Naturally, when they see someone masterful, they immediately prostrate themselves and begin singing the praises of the mighty. It has become their instinct. It is their nature.

    What we need are people who immediately suspect and disrespect authority. And who don’t trust anyone over thirty.

  3. KG says

    The Turkish authorities are saying they believe Khashoggi was killed inside the Saudi consulate. If true, it is hard to think of a more blatant abuse of diplomatic privilege.

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