May 30, 2018

IntelBrief: The Saudi Step Backwards 

a woman drives a car on a highway in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, as part of a campaign to defy Saudi Arabia's ban on women driving.  (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali, FILE) .
  • On May 29, the United Nations human rights office called on Saudi Arabia to provide more information about recent arrests of women’s rights activists.
  • At least 11 activists have been detained in the last month and the state media has described the activists as ‘traitors.’
  • The draconian crackdown has blunted the impact of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s recent charm offensive in the West.
  • The arrests come just weeks before the infamous ban on women drivers is lifted in the kingdom.


Saudi Arabia has recently arrested a number of high-profile women’s rights activists just weeks before the ban on female drivers in Saudi Arabia is set to end. The lifting of the driving ban on June 24 has been heralded by supporters of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as proof of his commitment to move the Kingdom more in line with fundamental values like equality and human rights. The arrests are leaving many to wonder if Crown Prince Salman has decided that he needs to blunt the voices calling for more freedom as the ban is lifted.

The arrests of the activists and the level of animosity shown by state-affiliated media towards those detained surprised many. Among those detained were Loujain Al-Hathloul and Aziza al-Yousef. Al-Hathloul made headlines when she filmed herself driving in Saudi Arabia in November 2014: a protest to draw support for lifting the ban that got her arrested. Al-Yousef is among the earliest activists calling for lifting the driving ban and has dedicated her life to helping Saudi women gain more basic freedoms. The government could have embraced these important figures in the lead up to this historic change, but instead did just the opposite, labeling them ‘traitors’.

The detentions are so out of sync with the government’s recent modernization rhetoric, it has caused widespread condemnation and concern. On May 29, the United Nations human rights office put out an official statement asking for more information about the detainees and the reasons behind their arrests. U.N. human rights spokeswoman Liz Throssell told reporters in Geneva that her office was asking that the Saudi government provide details as to the location and condition of the detainees and ‘and ensure their rights to due process guarantees.’ Throssell added that ‘if, as it appears, their detention is related solely to their work as human rights defenders and activists on women’s issues, they should be released immediately.’

It remains to be seen how the Saudi government will react; several of the detainees have been released, but why they were arrested in the first place remains unknown. The government may well want to manage the pace of new freedoms for women, not allowing the lifting of the ban to serve as a rallying cry for even more advancements. The world will be watching to see if the reforms the Saudi government has promised will generate true equality for women, or whether the lifting of the driving ban is simply window dressing.


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