The latest Saudi crackdown has led to the arrest of several of the very same activists who called for an end to the ban on women drivers:
Nearly four years later, Ms. al-Hathloul is back behind bars, after a government crackdown swept up at least seven prominent women’s rights advocates just weeks before the government is to abolish the driving ban. The clampdown has made adversaries of activists who typically would be allies of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s liberalizing agenda, sounding the alarm on the limits of social change in the conservative kingdom.
“Everybody thought that by granting women the right to drive Mohammed bin Salman is a great reformer,” says Madawi al-Rasheed, a Saudi opposition activist and professor at the London School of Economics. “That’s nonsense. He is a person who wants to reach the top at any cost.”
The Saudi government is autocratic and repressive, and relaxing a few of the rules doesn’t change the nature of the government. Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) may be willing to loosen some restrictions for the sake of appearances, but as these latest arrests show he absolutely won’t tolerate any meaningful dissent or criticism. This was already clear when the government was rounding up dissidents last year and executing peaceful critics of the government, and it is impossible to miss now. MbS’ many cheerleaders in the West were quick to credit him as a “reformer” before he had done much of anything, and they applauded him for what he said he would do in the future rather than wait to see what he actually did. As MbS continues consolidating power prior to his succession to the throne, we should expect more crackdowns like this.
Like practically everything MbS does, the latest crackdown has been heavy-handed and unnecessary:
Pro-government media outlets and Twitter accounts have since unleashed a smear campaign branding those detained as “traitors.”
The Saudi daily Al Jaziran ran a front-page story on Saturday with the photos of Ms. al-Hathloul and Ms. al-Yousef with the headline “There is no place for traitors among us.” The hashtags “embassy agents” and “traitors of the religion and the motherland” on Sunday were trending in Saudi Arabia on Twitter, a platform that is popular among Saudis and closely monitored by the government.
Authoritarian regimes often try to portray internal dissenters as agents of foreign powers in order to maintain the fiction that no “real” patriot would question or challenge the regime. While this may suppress dissent for a time, it exposes the fragility and lack of confidence of the regime that does it.