Foreign Affairs and International Relations

Saudi Arabia: ‘A modernising drive by illiberal means’

Aditya Prasanna Bhattacharya

The facade of social reform hides the ever-increasing suppression of dissent and activism


On June 24, Saudi Arabia lifted the ban on women driving by allowing female drivers to obtain licenses. This move was celebrated not only in the country, but all around the world as a step in the right direction. Undoubtedly, the lifting of the ban in itself represents a positive step towards women’s equality in the country. But when seen in light of the surrounding circumstances, the cause for celebration is dampened. In this post, I will argue that the wave of activists’ arrests not only casts a shadow over the liberalisation policy of the Saudi authorities, but also reveals its true nature.

Over the past few weeks, a substantial number of activists who campaigned for the lifting of the driving ban, were arrested by Saudi authorities. These individuals, some of whom have campaigned for this cause for over three decades, were held on undisclosed grounds. But hours after their arrest, the State media agency issued a statement, according to which the activists were guilty of ‘breaching national unity’, and ‘contacting and receiving funding from foreign organisations’. In a statement, the Saudi Public Prosecutor claimed that the detainees were guilty of ‘coordinated moves to undermine the security of the Kingdom’. From a joint perusal of statements and interviews, it seems as though the official charge leveled against the activists was ‘acting as foreign agents’. In any case, it must be noted that the authorities have failed to specify any kind of specific threats that these activists pose to Saudi national security. This casts aspersions on the real reason behind the arrests.

Trying to determine why these arrests were made leads one to a much larger question: Is Saudi Arabia really becoming more liberal? In light of the multiple bans that are being lifted over the last few months, an affirmative case can be made quite easily. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (‘MBS’, as he is popularly known) has aggressively projected an image of reform and change. Liberalisation of Saudi society has been on the top of his agenda, as is evidenced by the lifting of bans on cinema, music concerts, and entry of women into sports arenas. World leaders have hailed him as the young face of a new Saudi Arabia, and have heaped praise on him for the drastic initiation of reforms.

Why then, are the activists being arrested for no specific crime, apart from the crime of protesting against a ban that MBS himself considers outdated? There are three reasons for this:

1. MBS wants the lifting of the ban to be viewed as a gracious gift, and not as the Saudi Government yielding to domestic or international pressure. Acknowledging that the reforms are a direct consequence of the protests would amount to legitimising the activism, which MBS cannot afford to do. This is because it will ostensibly lead to a further series of protests, and growing demands for more reform.

2. Secondly, MBS has a vested interest in showing that any reform that is taking place in the country is due to his initiative, and not that of the activists. Not only does this legitimise his authority and delegitimise the efforts of the activists, it also adds considerable weight to his international image as a reform-minded ruler. This certainly amounts to an active alteration and rewriting of the history of activism in Saudi Arabia, but given that this is the modus operandi of almost every government seeking to co-opt a legacy of reform, it comes as no surprise. It has been made abundantly clear that there is only one reformer in Saudi society: MBS.

3. Lastly, the arrests themselves are meant to have a chilling effect on protests and activism across the country. Through pure intimidation, MBS is making it very clear that it is undesirable to be an activist in Saudi Arabia. If individuals who have garnered an international reputation in activism can be jailed without specific charges, no one from the masses will want to invoke the wrath of the government by engaging in activism. This has a serious implication on the question of increasing democratisation in Saudi society. By stamping on avenues for dissent and protest, MBS has made it abundantly clear that the series of reforms is not to be construed as a project in imbibing western democratic values.

In any case, one cannot be sure if this move strikes at the root of patriarchy in the country at all. Many critics have suggested that the driving issue was the lowest hanging fruit, as no other country in the world had a ban on women driving. Patriarchy in general habitually makes such small selective concessions, while silently brushing the more problematic issues aside. The major impediment facing Saudi women, for instance, is the Male Guardianship system, according to which women have to obtain written permission from their male relatives for things as basic as obtaining a passport, travelling abroad, pursuing education, marriage etc. Until this system is abolished, no tangible progress in Saudi women’s rights can be said to have been made. In light of the fact that all major female activists are in prison, prospects of abolition of the male guardianship system look bleak.

Analysts have also established that the real reason for lifting the driving ban is economic necessity, and not social reform. Decline in prices of oil have led to a reduction in the feasibility of government employment, which an overwhelming majority of Saudis have traditionally relied on. The Government is now attempting to nudge its subjects, including women, towards the private sector. Due to the ban on driving, however, most female professionals were forced to hire private drivers, which ate into a substantial portion of their income. This was a major disincentive for women to work in the private sector. With the lifting of the ban, MBS hopes to create greater employment incentives for female professionals, and investment incentives for foreign firms, who view Saudi’s social reform as a pivot for economic liberalisation.

All around the world, various sections have lauded MBS for lifting the ban. But none of these individuals or entities have censured him for the spate of arrests. This hypocrisy is remarkable, given that some of the women who have been arrested are global champions for social reform. “These are women who were known to the world long before people knew who Mohammed bin Salman was,” says women’s rights researcher on the Middle East and North Africa for Human Rights Watch. Yet, it is MBS who has claimed all the credit for the reforms, and none of the blame for the increasing suppression of dissent and activism.

Image source: Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images

2 replies »

  1. Interesting read. However if the intention is to climb higher up to pluck not so low hanging fruits then I don’t see any issue targeting low hanging ones first. Nevertheless in Saudi Arabia any lifting of ban however small and insignificant is still a breather.

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  2. Thanks for letting me know the actual picture behind lifting the driving ban on women in Saudi Arabia. I was considering MBS as a great sultan till I read your article.

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