Hopes were high after three Saudi women’s rights activists on trial were granted temporary release that other detainees would also be released. These hopes were quickly dashed. As the trials progressed slowly, eight people connected to the women’s activists were detained in the first week of April.
The latest wave of arrests was surprising, not just because of the aforementioned hopes, but also because the targets are not considered prominent activists. Most of them are writers and bloggers known for their support for political and social reforms among small circles locally, and they have kept a low profile over the last 24 months.
Two of them recently told a friend that they felt the scrutiny following Jamal Khashoggi’s killing has created some room to breathe even if tensions remained hight. Their calculation that the government was unlikely to arrest more people while western allies continue to pressure Saudi Arabia for accountability turned out to be wrong.
The impact of outside pressure on Saudi policy has always been hotly debated, but recent events suggest that impact is rather limited: 37 people were executed on terrorism-related crimes on April 23. The majority of them were from the country’s Shia Muslim minority.
The government said in a statement that those who received capital punishment “adopted terrorist and extremist thinking and formed terrorist cells in order to wreak havoc, destabilise security, spread chaos, stir sectarian sedition and harm social stability and security.”
Many of those executed were arrested in connection to the protests and clashes in Qatif during the Arab Spring years. Human rights groups said two of them were minors at the time of arrest, including Mujtaba al-Sowaiket, who was on his way to attend college in the US when he was detained. His mother appealed to the king and crown prince to pardon him, telling FT in 2017:
It [the arrest] was something I never expected. I had a breakdown at the airport, I started screaming. My only son. A moment I have waited for since he was a little child — the moment when he goes to university. It was a huge shock.
Those executed also included a group of men arrested in 2013 over charges of spying for Iran.
Frightened of things
The executions took place on the eve of the Saudi Financial Sector conference. It was the largest business forum held in Riyadh this year, and the theme of the event seemed to be that the kingdom is emerging from the dark cloud that overshadowed the PIF-backed Future Investment Initiative last October.
Neither the executions nor Khashoggi were mentioned as top Western bankers and financiers like BlackRock’s Larry Fink and John Flint of HSBC appeared on stage to praise Saudi economic reforms and the “great opportunities” offered by the kingdom.
When asked if the political climate surrounding Saudi Arabia is hurting its ability to attract investment, finance minister Mohammed al-Jadaan urged international businesses to ignore negative coverage of the kingdom. “To a large extent, people will need to let go part of what they see in the media and come see for themselves,” he said. “Investors who are actually familiar with the region are investing in the region.”
Funk agreed with the minister: “The fact that there are issues in the press does not tell me I must run away from a place. In many cases it tells me I should run to [it] and invest because what we are most frightened of things that we don’t talk about.”
Saudi Arabia also used the conference to highlight that its economy is picking up. The finance ministry said the first quarter results show that the state budget posted a 27.8 billion surplus, boosted by growth in both oil and non-oil revenues.
The second day of the conference was rife with rumours that the crown prince would make a surprise appearance amid heightened security measures. Organisers used the rumours to push guests to attend the final sessions (“please go inside because the doors would be locked before the crown prince arrives”) but the event was concluded without any royal selfies.
Will selfies be allowed under the “law for the protection of public taste” that was passed by the cabinet last week? This is still unclear. Like several laws passed by the government in recent years, the articles are written in a broad way that makes them open to wide interpretation.
For example, Article 4 states that it is “not permissible to appear in public in an improper clothes or outfit, or to wear a clothing or outfit that bears pictures, shapes, signs or expressions that offend public taste.” Violations are punishable by up to 5,000 riyals fine.
Assel Aljaied, assistant professor of criminal law at the Institute of Public Administration, wrote in al-Watan daily that the new law could potentially bring back issues previously associated with the religious police before the force was stripped of its power in 2016.
“The public taste law should be more detailed: what is the desired modest dress code? What are the limits of modesty? Is the veil part of the modest dress? What is the form and colour of this veil?” he asked, calling for detailed bylaws to be written by legal experts.
In the meantime, uniformed policemen are already wielding the new law (even though it doesn’t come into affect until mid-May) as they attempt to control public behaviour at a time when social life is becoming increasingly open, particularly in major cities.
The escalating intrusiveness by police would have been a surprising development in that context, but the truth is my threshold for surprise is very high nowadays.
That is all for this dispatch from Riyadh Bureau. Thanks for reading! You can send your feedback by email: [email protected] If you enjoy this newsletter please do share it with others.