For nearly a year, Saudi Arabia’s most well-known women activists were detained without charges, and for a time, without their families knowing their locations or conditions. The referral of some of their cases by the public prosecutor March 1, and three appearances in a Riyadh criminal court, have provided contradictory and often confounding information as to their fates.
As their trials move toward possible sentencing, reporters have cited evidence of political and personalized persecution. The targeting of these social activists, including individuals with long careers in education and activism well known to the government and in dialogue with it, has broken traditional understandings. The nature of their arrests and public shaming, their alleged abuse during detainment, and the shifts in court venue and accusations, belie any notion of protection under the law. The unpredictability of the Saudi court system, always subject to variations in judicial judgment, is now further muddied by the intervening and at times competing agendas of new security agencies and the royal court. Their case thus stands as an illustration of the shifting power dynamics in the kingdom as King Salman bin Abdulaziz has centralized control in the royal court and in the hands of his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, complicating an already fraught political environment for intellectuals and activists in Saudi Arabia.
The initial arrests of women’s rights activists occurred on May 15, 2018, the month before the end of the ban on women driving. Those detained hailed from across the kingdom, both women and men supporting their cause, including young activists such as Loujain al-Hathloul and Eman al-Nafjan as well as leaders from the previous generation of women’s rights campaigners. Their detention was followed a few days later by a statement from the Presidency of State Security, a new institution created as King Salman consolidated counterterrorism and domestic intelligence powers under his direct authority after ousting Mohammed bin Nayef as interior minister and crown prince in 2017.
The Saudi government released a public statement with accusations that went well beyond the acknowledged social activism of these campaigners to end the driving ban and provide women with greater legal rights. It accused seven detainees of coordinated action to “overthrow the religious and national foundations of the state,” undertaking “suspicious communication with foreign agencies,” while “recruiting individuals within sensitive organs of the state,” and “giving financial support to hostile elements abroad aiming to undermine the security and social stability” of the kingdom. Moreover, the arrests were matched by an unprecedented public campaign to smear the reputations of the activists. In complete violation of Saudi legal and social norms, the names and images of Hathloul, Nafjan, and Aziza al-Yousef alongside detained male supporters Mohammed al-Rabea and lawyer Ibrahim al-Mudaimeegh appeared in the state-controlled media, amplified through social media, denouncing them as traitors. These were accompanied by news analysis placing them at the head of a “soft war” against the kingdom, consisting of demonstrations and efforts to damage the reputation of the country internationally.
In the weeks that followed, some detainees were released, while new arrests occurred. Nouf Abdelaziz was picked up after publicly stating her support for the detained activists, and her friend, Mayaa al-Zahrani, was also detained after posting a letter on her behalf, illustrating the extreme risk of simply offering news or expressions of solidarity with those detained. In the ensuing months, other notable activists – the prominent academic Hatoon al-Fassi, human rights campaigner Samar Badawi, and the well-known Eastern Province activist Nassima al-Sadah – were likewise brought into custody.
The overhyped accusations and public media campaign targeting the women activists speak to important shifts in the kingdom. These changes are reflected in the expansion of the women’s movement inside Saudi Arabia. After the arrests of the women who undertook the first driving protest in the Eastern Province during the Gulf War in 1990, women’s activism proceeded more cautiously. Liberal reformers sought to raise awareness and build support for greater rights through professional networks and reading circles. In the late 2000s, academics and activists began the Baladi movement, which successfully campaigned for women’s inclusion in the municipal council elections that were inaugurated in 2005. In the past decade, a new generation of Saudi women took to social media, uploading videos of themselves behind the wheels of their cars in defiance of the ban on women driving, and generating campaigns to garner support for the abolition of the entire guardianship system, which requires Saudi women to obtain a male guardian’s permission for fundamental decisions such as marriage, education, work, and travel.
The elevation of these liberal activists as a threat to national security illustrates the state’s modified security perception in the wake of the 2011 Arab uprisings. The spectacle of Arab leaders overthrown through political mobilization has convinced the Saudi leadership to treat even social reform as a threat if it is driven from the bottom up and not granted from the top down. Social media activism – even for liberal causes – can generate prosecution before specialized security courts once reserved for terrorism cases. This expansion in the category of political risk became formally expressed in the 2017 counterterrorism law promulgated at the same time as security services were centralized under the king’s direct authority.
The orchestration of state and informal media messaging echoes the broader efforts to crack down on critics and proactively mobilize youth behind state measures overseen by Mohammed bin Salman from within the royal court. At the heart of this mission are the Center for Studies and Media Affairs and a cybersecurity federation, both overseen by the crown prince’s advisor Saud al-Qahtani. The center has utilized extensive polling to monitor public opinion while simultaneously enforcing strict adherence to state narratives in traditional and social media under penalty of arrest. Qahtani spearheaded the new leadership’s efforts to dominate the new media landscape through which the younger generation of women’s rights campaigners had promoted their cause.
For nearly three months, many of the families had no contact with their detained love ones, nor knowledge of where they were being held. It was later reported that detainees in fact had been moved to irregular detention facilities directly under the control of the royal court. While in these facilities, Western media and human rights organizations have reported, some of the women were tortured, through beatings, shock treatments, waterboarding, and psychological and sexual harassment; some identified Qahtani directly as one of those taunting them. Once moved back to conventional prison facilities these detainees were able to visit with their families and reportedly informed them of these incidents.
The murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018 invited greater scrutiny of Saudi Arabia’s crackdown on dissent and attention to the case of the women activists. News of their alleged abuse in prison was reported by human rights organizations and international media in November. In December, an envoy from the General Prosecutor’s office as well as a separate delegation from the Saudi Human Rights Commission dispatched from the royal court were sent to interview the women regarding these allegations. In March, The Guardian reported that it had obtained copies of medical reports to be submitted to the royal court detailing severe physical abuse of prisoners, many of them women, alongside recommendations for the early release of those with health problems and potential pardons for the abused detainees. The examinations were said to have been part of an internal review commissioned by King Salman and came amid other actions initiated by the king in the wake of the Khashoggi affair to restructure Saudi Arabia’s intelligence services and research bodies within the royal court, including the one run by Qahtani.
On March 1 the Saudi prosecution ended its investigation and referred the cases of some of the women to court. Yet the beginning of their formal prosecution has been marked by more judicial irregularities, making the ultimate intent of the government difficult to discern. While at least 10 women were brought forward for trial, some of those detained, including Badawi and Sadah, were not. Among those who have appeared in court were women arrested over different periods of time and from different political orientations. These include university student Shadan Oneizi, prominent researcher Abeer Namankani, and Amal al-Harbi, the wife of a detained activist. Interestingly, the Islamist preacher Rokaya al-Mohareb, by no means a supporter of the women’s rights campaign, is likewise being prosecuted alongside the liberal reformers.
Importantly, both the venue for the trial and the charges represent a stand down from the initial accusations against the women. In a highly unusual action, jurisdiction was shifted at the last minute from the specialized court associated with terrorism cases to the Riyadh criminal court. The charges that have been reported, while substantial, have not risen to the level of the allegations of spying and treason initially contained in the statement from state security and repeated by Mohammed bin Salman in a Bloomberg interview. The language of the charges – which focus on violations under the cybersecurity law as well as contacts with human rights organizations, foreign diplomats, and journalists – are notably secular, devoid of sharia-based legal reasoning.
Journalists and diplomatic observers have been barred from the hearings, which have been attended by family members. After the third hearing, the initial group was divided as Nafjan, Yousef, and Mohareb were granted temporary release and told their trials would resume after Ramadan. According to the family of Hathloul, the remaining defendants, including Hathloul, Fassi, Abdelaziz, and Zahrani, had their fourth hearing delayed due to a private matter of the judge, and no future dates have been set.
While the shift in venue and charges indicate a possible easing or even a pardon of the defendants, other actions have been less encouraging. In a group hearing the women were asked to testify regarding their abusive treatment in prison. However, as reported by Hathloul’s family, the prosecutor continued to deny incidents of torture despite the testimony and the earlier interviews that took place in prison. Those looking for indications that the political crackdown on dissidents is easing in the wake of the Khashoggi affair were disappointed as Saudi security forces initiated another round of arrests of intellectuals in early April, many of them close to the women’s rights activists, including Yousef’s son, Salah al-Haidar. An academic, Anas al-Mazrou, was also arrested after publicly questioning the whereabouts of the detained women activists during a workshop at the Riyadh Book Fair. And despite his role as the key operative in the crackdown on critics, alleged involvement in the abuse of women detainees, and sanctioning by the United States for his role in the Khashoggi killing, Qahtani has not been detained and reportedly remains an informal advisor to the crown prince: a tangible indicator of the lack of political will to change course.
A Security State in Transition
The case of the Saudi women activists underlines the dramatic changes underway in Saudi Arabia. The consolidation of authority has eliminated the limited space that once existed for liberal social activists. The lines of communication that once extended between organs of the state and social activists have been replaced by a monopolization of the state message and a nationalist mobilization of the public behind the leadership. Moreover, an element of punitive retribution has emerged from within the new institutions of the royal court, distinguishable from the judiciary. While there are indications of a review of some of these actions and a restructuring of media and intelligence bodies within the royal court, the impact has not yet been felt in the ongoing trials, as credible allegations of torture and abuse have thus far gone unacknowledged. Family members of the detained activists, as well as other activists and writers who are not currently in prison, remain banned from travel based on orders from the royal court.
There is a broader question over the longer-term impact of this expansion of the security state in such a manner into the file of women. There have certainly been credible allegations of torture in Saudi Arabia, especially concerning terrorist cases and networks. But the imprisonment, public defamation, and abuse of women – especially women well known and respected both in the country and abroad – would seem certain to register on a different level in a conservative Saudi society where women’s honor is linked to that of the family and tribe, and protection is expected. The allegations of torture in captivity, widespread on social media, have been met with disbelief by Saudis; it is difficult to assess how this will resonate over time given the current climate of caution and intimidation of those coming to the defense of women’s activism. As the definition of security threats expands to liberal activists and social reformers, old social understandings are being upended and taboos broken. As expressed by many Saudis in the wake of the murder of Khashoggi in the Istanbul Consulate: “This isn’t Saudi Arabia.”