Saudi Arabia's Revolution From the Top Has No Place for Critics (JMD quoted on Bloomberg)

Saudi Arabia's 

Revolution From

the Top Has No Place

For Critics

Vivian Nereim
Glen Carey
Clerics and other dissenters are co-opted, cowed -- or jailed
·        Radical change could bring chaos without a ‘very firm hand’

Few would describe Mohammed Al-Arefe as a defender

of women’s rights. In one infamous video, the Saudi
cleric explains exactly how a man should beat his wife.
But when the government decided to allow women to
drive cars, up popped Al-Arefe on state TV to say what a
good idea that was. “A modest woman will remain modest
whether she drives or not,” he told the nation. Other
religious leaders, once hostile to any departure from
traditional ways, joined the chorus of approval.

The kingdom’s powerful preachers were getting with the
program. A couple of weeks earlier, they’d seen what
happens to those who don’t. More than a dozen prominent
clerics, activists and businessmen were arrested and accused
of “pushing an extremist agenda.”

Under Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, Saudi Arabia is

seeking to reintroduce itself to the world -- opening its
economy to global business, and its society to practices once
deemed un-Islamic. At the same time, the limited space for
criticism and debate that once existed in this absolute monarchy
is being stifled.

‘More Repressive’

The kingdom has become “more repressive than in the past,”
said James Dorsey, a Middle East specialist at Singapore’s
Nanyang Technological University. “It’s a break with the era of
King Abdullah, who often sought to forge consensus,” he said.

“The Salmans do not tolerate any criticism whatsoever.”
Saudi factions used to compete for influence at the royal court.
Conservatives carried much more weight, and were allowed
sway over social policies and education; liberals were
sometimes appeased with small steps toward reform.
Inertia ruled.

Things began to change when King Salman succeeded his
brother Abdullah in 2015. The transformation accelerated
-- and the circle of decision-making narrowed -- with the rise
of Salman’s son to a dominant position in the government.
Prince Mohammed envisions a “vibrant society,” with more
women in the workforce and more entertainment options.

His economic program is based on a radical shift from public
to private sector, and diversification out of oil. He’s cited the
disruptive innovators of Silicon Valley, like Facebook Inc.’s
Mark Zuckerberg, as role models.

‘Under Attack’

It’s not all coercion. The crown prince has cozied up to many
potential critics. He posed for a photo with Al-Arefe, the
smiling preacher’s arm wrapped around him, and held a
personal meeting with a once-oppositional cartoonist.
But ultimately, change on this scale can only come from the
top down, some supporters say.

“You need a very firm hand to see this through without
provoking chaos,” said Ali Shihabi, who’s close to the
government and executive director of the Arabia Foundation
in Washington. “The country is going through a generational
succession, the government is undertaking a herculean effort
to restructure the country amid low oil prices, and it’s under
attack by Shiite and Sunni jihadis and Iran.”

A search for consensus would be futile, he said, because
“the political spectrum between the conservatives and the
liberals is so wide as to be impossible to reconcile.”

‘Kingdom of Fear’

Critics see it differently, even if they increasingly have to
leave the country in order to say so.

“Saudi Arabia never was an open society, but it never was
a kingdom of fear,” said Jamal Khashoggi, a senior journalist
and former government adviser now living in self-imposed
exile in the U.S. The wave of arrests is “part of the closing
down of space for freedom of expression,” he said.  

That’s also affecting liberals, often a term of abuse in the
kingdom. On the night of the driving decision on September
26, authorities began calling prominent women’s rights
advocates and warning them not to publicly celebrate -- or
face consequences, according to four people familiar with
the matter. One of them speculated that the government
didn’t want activists to get any credit for the decision,
preferring to highlight the role of the leadership.

The government’s new Center for International
Communications denied the claim, saying that “no one has
been censored or warned about expressing their views.”

‘Manage the Narrative’

Shihabi said the government didn’t want activists provoking
the conservative base, preferring the airwaves to be
“dominated by voices from the religious establishment.”
“They need to manage the narrative,” he said.
After decades of unresponsive communications, the
government has hired new public relations firms and
appointed a U.S.-educated spokeswoman for its embassy in
Washington. Its new media office in Riyadh is staffed by
young and tech-savvy English speakers.

It all amounts to a “global public-relations coup,” said Tim
Cooper, a London-based economist for BMI Research, a
unit of Fitch Group. The driving announcement was a success
on those terms, he said: “If Saudi Arabia wants to demonstrate
that it’s open to foreign investment, these are the sort of things
that continue to put it on the map.”

Outside Saudi borders, controlling the narrative is harder.
Khashoggi aired his concerns in a Washington Post op-ed last
month, declaring the kingdom had become “unbearable.”

‘Tough Judgement’

The crackdown continued last week when 22 people were
arrested for “inciting public opinion” on social media. Some
educated and previously outspoken Saudis are making plans to
leave the country. During a recent conversation, one elite Saudi
lowered his voice to say he’s looking for a way out. He said he
loved the country and wanted its transformation plan to succeed,
but was worried that only “yes-men” could thrive in the current

Prince Mohammed’s bold departures on economic and social
matters are matched by a newly assertive foreign policy. In
Yemen and Qatar, concrete results have proved elusive. Still,
patriotic fervor is running high. Images of Prince Mohammed
are all over state media. Even orange-juice cartons in grocery
stores are adorned with pictures that celebrate Saudi power:
fighter jets, saluting soldiers, clenched fists.
The tougher policies at home and abroad are intertwined
in the Twitter hashtag “black list,” launched by royal court
adviser Saud Al Qahtani in August. He urged Saudis to name
and shame people who took Qatar’s side in the Gulf dispute.
There’ll be “tough judgment and pursuit” for every “mercenary”
who gets blacklisted, he wrote.
The hashtag has taken on a life of its own. Recent targets
include a famous comedian who makes satirical YouTube videos,
and a female activist arrested years ago for driving. Khashoggi
has also been attacked online, labeled a traitor and mercenary.
“The media and the electronic army are being encouraged to go
after those people,” he said. “It’s very Orwellian.”


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