Prominent women activists silenced by Saudi Arabia
Despite outward show of social reforms, Saudi authorities are cracking down on dissent
Samar Badawi receiving the 2012 International Women of Courage award from first lady Michelle Obama and secretary of state Hillary Clinton. File photograph: Gary Cameron/Reuters
Saudi Arabian authorities have detained two prominent women activists, Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Saadeh, and have been holding them incommunicado since Monday, according to Saudi Prisoners of Conscience.
UN human rights spokeswoman Ravina Shamdassani called for unconditional release of all activists. She urged Riyadh to permit them to carry on with their “human rights work without fear of reprisals or prosecutions”. Activists can serve prison terms of 15-20 years.
Badawi, who has campaigned for female suffrage and abolition of male guardianship for women, was the 2012 recipient of the US International Women of Courage Award. Her brother Raif Badawi and former husband, lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair, are serving long prison terms for activism.
Saadeh was one of the first women to stand for office in the kingdom but was disqualified. Like Badawi, she has campaigned against guardianship, which requires women to obtain permission from fathers, husbands, brothers or sons before travelling, applying for passports, marrying or divorcing and obtaining medical treatment.
Human Rights Watch regional director Sarah Leah Whitson said: “The arrests of [Badawi and Saadeh] signal that the Saudi authorities see any peaceful dissent . . . as a threat to their autocratic rule.”
On June 24th, Saudi Arabia lifted its ban on female drivers, but the most prominent campaigners for the new law have been detained.
In the year since becoming crown prince, 33-year-old Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS), King Salman’s son, has cracked down on ultra-conservative clerics and liberal critics, consolidated his rule, implemented an anti-corruption drive, attempted economic and social reforms and carried on with his devastating war in Yemen and blockade of Qatar.
Some 300 Saudi princes, businessmen, officials and ministers were detained last November while the government extracted millions of dollars in cash, property and businesses. Consequently wealthy Saudis have been reluctant to invest in the kingdom, instead attempting to transfer money abroad. Foreign banks and firms have also hesitated to invest in Saudi Arabia.
The plan to raise $2 trillion by selling shares in Saudi Aramco has been put on hold due to the fluctuating price of oil, which affects valuation of the company.
MBS has opened cinemas, permitted women to attend sporting events and ended the ban on women driving
To fund non-oil sectors and diversify the economy, MBS has raised taxes and tariffs and cut subsidies, eliciting popular protests. He has imposed levies on foreign workers and their family members, prompting an 18-month exodus of more than 667,000 expatriates. They amount to 33 per cent of the population and 80 per cent of private sector employees.
Among those leaving are IT specialists, teachers and construction labourers, the latter being 90 per cent Asians. Saudis have not filled their positions. Unemployment stands at 12.9 per cent while incomes have shrunk.
Although the economy grew by 1.2 per cent in the first quarter of 2018 after shrinking to minus 0.9 per cent last year, business may take years to recoup losses.
Courting Saudis under the age of 30, MBS has opened cinemas, permitted women to attend sporting events and ended the ban on women driving. Critics argue these changes are public relations ploys. Women, like Badawi and Saadeh, who challenge male guardianship, a major social obstacle to progress, are branded “traitors”.
The stalemated Yemen war, launched by MBS in March 2015 and reportedly costing $200 million a day, has devastated the poorest country in the region, rendering 80 per cent of Yemenis dependent on external aid.
The quarrel with Qatar, initiated by MBS and his Abu Dhabi counterpart Mohammed bin Zayed, has divided the Gulf Co-operation Council, which had been a stabilising body in this strategic region.
MBS could face serious challenges following the death of King Salman (82), who has supported the impulsive prince in most but not all of his policies.