Endeavour for relief

Welcome to the second edition of Riyadh Bureau, a newsletter for people interested in Saudi Arabia — written by me, Ahmed Al Omran. Send your feedback to alomran@gmail.com or via Twitter: @ahmed

Extreme ends of spectrum

The trial of detained Saudi women’s rights activists has begun in Riyadh in the second week of March with a brief hearing. The women were brought in and given memos detailing charges pressed by the public prosecutors against them.

The charges were not made public, but campaigners said they “appear almost entirely related to their human rights activities,” including sharing information about women’s rights in Saudi Arabia with foreign journalists and diplomats. Authorities previously said the detained carried out intelligence activities for hostile entities.

The group on trial includes prominent activists arrested last May like Aziza al-Yousef and Loujain al-Hathloul, but curiously they were also joined by Rokaya al-Mohareb, a preacher and university professor who was detained in September 2017 in a crackdown that targeted dozens of academics, clerics and writers just few days before the kingdom announced the decision to lift the ban on women’s driving.

On the spectrum of Saudi female activists, al-Hathloul and al-Mohareb can be said to be standing at extreme ends from each other. As the former started campaigning against the driving ban while in college in Canada, the latter was railing against coeducation and westernisation of society.

It is unclear why authorities decided to put the conservative al-Mohareb in the same bucket with those mainly liberal activists, but she, along with al-Yousef and blogger Eman al-Nafjan, were granted temporary release after the second hearing that took place on March 27. Other women are expected to be released under the same terms in the coming days as they wait for the trial to continue.

Belated damage limitation

The manner in which this trial has progressed over the last few weeks suggests a desire to deal with an issue that has brought immense scrutiny to the kingdom in the aftermath of killing journalist Jamal Khashoggi, with speculation mounting that the temporary release of women would be followed by speedy convictions and soon after a royal pardon to bring this affair to an end.

As noted in the previous dispatch of this newsletter, there has been a lot of pressure on Saudi Arabia recently to act on the women’s rights issues, particularly from the US Congress.

Dick Durbin and eight other Democratic senators publicly called on the king to release political prisoners to “help repair the damaged US-Saudi relationship” and “demonstrate belated yet welcome respect for human rights,” according to a letter published by the lawmaker from Illinois.

Former Saudi ambassador to the US, Prince Khalid bin Salman, was back in DC this week, this time in his new role as deputy defence minister. He told Washington Post columnist David Ignatius during the visit that he hoped the partnership can be repaired: “The relationship did not start in one day, and it will not end in one day.”

In his column, Ignatius focuses on concerns shared by US and Saudi officials that defence and security cooperation between the two countries is being affected by the current tension, but consequences can be seen in other domains beyond the aforementioned—from business deals cancelled or put on hold, to collaboration projects in arts and culture being scrapped. Three examples just from this month:

Such rejections must be a source of concern as Saudi Arabia hopes to recruit foreign skills and expertise in order to achieve its plans for economic and social reform. But there is one person who does not seem concerned at all these days: Prince Alwaleed bin Talal.

A deep shaving cut

The billionaire sat down for a long interview on Khalijia channel, part of the Rotana entertainment network that he owns, as he sought to project confidence even though the Bloomberg Billionaires Index shows that his wealth has gone from a high of $36 billion in 2014 to just $15.5 billion.

Another thing that was gone: the beard he grew during his stay at the Ritz-Carlton, where the prince and more than 200 of the kingdom’s top business elites and former government officials were held as part of an anti-corruption campaign led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The majority of them were released after reaching settlements with the government. 

Alwaleed praised MBS in the interview and called him the “engineer of saving the Saudi economy from collapse,” but he raised many eyebrows by saying more details about the terms of his release could be made public in the coming weeks or months. “Maybe the market still wants more transparency,” he said as he denied corruption allegations, calling the deal he reached with the government an “understanding” and not a settlement.

One unexpected reaction to the interview came from MBC. The Saudi-owned network is the Middle East’s largest media group and competes with Rotana.

Amr Adeeb, an Egyptian anchor with MBC, used one of his trademark long rants to launch a withering attack on Prince Alwaleed for his criticism of the rival network as well as spending past holidays in his yacht along Turkey’s coast and considering Qatar as a base for his now-defunct al-Arab news channel.

Such verbal assault on a member of the royal family is unusual, and some people say it could not have happened without a green light, if not direct instructions, from higher-ups in the kingdom who have always enjoyed closer ties to MBC than Rotana. If Alwaleed’s interview was an attempt to rebuild his image locally then this reaction could mean that it has slightly backfired.

Swimming against stream

Nevertheless, Alwaleed’s business continues to attract interest from abroad despite recent events: Warner Music Group is reportedly in talks to acquire a stake in his Dubai-based Rotana Music, the Arab world’s largest record label. He has also invested $266.7 million in Paris-based music streaming service Deezer which entered a partnership with the Rotana.

The prince said he plans to focus his investments in the local market to take advantage of the kingdom’s economic transformation plans. Among potential investment opportunities he sees is sports: Alwaleed has repeated past statements on his intention to invest in local champions al-Hilal when the government finalises its plans to privatise football clubs.

The Riyadh team was at the centre of controversy this month after the Asian Football Confederation decided to strip Qatar-owned television network beIN Sports of the right to screen its games in Saudi Arabia. Al-Hilal’s match in the AFC Champions League against Qatar’s Duhail SC was live-streamed on the football governing body’s YouTube and Facebook pages.

BeIN Sports announced plans to sue the AFC for breaching the exclusive broadcasting contract, said to be worth $300 million, the latest twist in the Gulf dispute unfolding at the intersection of media and sports.

A pirate TV network called beoutQ emerged last year, airing content that beIN Sports had spent billions of dollars to buy, including the World Cup and UEFA Champions League. The Qatari network accused the Saudi government of backing the channel, but Saudis denied any involvement with beoutQ and said they are working hard to fight piracy.

This came amid what could have been a tough battle for the presidency of AFC, pitting incumbent Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa of Bahrain against Qatar’s Saud al-Mohannadi. But the latter announced his withdrawal from the race earlier this week, paving the way for Sheikh Salman to remain at the helm of Asian football for another term.

Royal greens

Let’s finish with two pieces of good news:

That is all for this dispatch from Riyadh Bureau. Thanks for reading! You can send your feedback by email: alomran@gmail.com. If you enjoy this newsletter please do share it with others.