Sunday, October 27, 2019

In Saudi Arabia, the Prince has no Clothes

Five years ago, crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman popped up on the Arabian Peninsula, raging across the earth sowing conflict, slashing the jugular of free speech, stoning freedom of expression, and filling prisons with those having different opinions. He plays many roles at once: militarist, politician, and economist, all with the mind of a policeman. He is even the champion of entertainment and charity. He has been bestowed with all the awards of the land one can possibly receive, and even let some of them go to his brothers. And he surrounds himself with a new, unreservedly devoted, oligarchy.

One evening, his subjects could be heard whispering in caf├ęs that their young prince has drained the people’s resources on a catastrophic and devastating war, creating armed conflicts in neighbouring nations, and that he obviously doesn’t give a shit that his people have been affected by rising prices and fat rents and swelling electricity and water bills.

Citizens began paying for all services. They whispered that normal people now pay half their salaries for austerity politics and that the migrant workers have become sacrificial lambs suffering the consequences of the regime’s mistakes, forced to pay huge sums to stay in the kingdom of the two holy mosques. The people must pay unjust taxes while this youngster wastes their millions on fairy tale castles, fine art, and luxury yachts.

One subject whispered: that youngster lacks the experience to lead. His capricious and absolutist decisions will only lead to disaster. But the only choice we have is to applaud him, emigrate, or be jailed—and in the worst case, have our throats slashed.
One beautiful day, a dubious consultancy firm arrived to give advice to the government and the king. These firm travels across the world to sell illusions, claiming that only the prudent and wise can truly understand their magnanimous plans and big ideas. The youngster had heard about them and ordered his court to invite them. The meeting took place, and without hesitation he showered them with huge sums of cash. The firm promised the new autocratic regime magnificent visions about which everyone else would be jealous. The consultants emphasize that only the wise and savvy have the capacity to comprehend the end results of the plans they mean to propose. Those who cannot see the advantages in their way of thinking belong those less intelligent ranks.
After a while, the young prince sent his minister to check out how the work with the visions of the future was going. The minister was scared that he would fail to understand these grand visions. The consultants explained the amazing changes the nation’s economy would experience, which had been damaged by sinking oil prices long before the new visions even began to take form. But the minister really couldn’t see those changes, and also didn’t understand what the visions were supposed to be built upon in the first place. He anyway asserted to the prince that the visions were very nice. He said they contained powerfully beautiful images of neoliberalism.

The people applauded. The newspapers wrote that they had never before seen such a lovely economy as this, and that the young prince was a fantastic and revolutionary reformer who will cure the people of their oil addiction.

The young price allowed himself to be interviewed by the international media and was depicted clothed in his new visions. The people again applauded and looked forward to finding out more about them. A great carnival was arranged to display the new visions. His majesty’s portrait was raised across the city. His underlings cheered, not in delight, but rather in fear. No sooner had the young prince captured the nation’s heart, then a voice rang out: “But this vision is bare!” Another cried: “Why were we not allowed to take part in crafting these visions?” After a while, his subjects saw that these visions were nothing more than pretty words, lacking any content or realistic solutions. The number of those in poverty rose, while the rich got richer. They saw that there were no checks and balances in the young price’s decision. They saw how the middle class had been left behind for the whimsy of the market and monopoly. They saw that there was no civil society that could protect the individual, and that the regime had remade the economic system without any corresponding political or democratic changes.

A bold writer and expert of the economy raised his voice, criticizing the visions. He pointed out all the mistakes and vagaries they contained. He warned the nation was selling out its natural resources. The king arrested him. Many others criticized the autocratic regime and its conflicts with bordering nations. They too were arrested, and some were forced to flee.
When the visions failed to achieve their promised changes, the prince realized that his advisers had lied about the magical powers the visions were supposed to have. He saw that his cousins had a malicious hidden agenda. He arrested them and held them in luxury prisons, forcing them to pay dearly for his freedom to ease his own economic burden. He demanded from them total, unhesitating loyalty.
To dampen the people’s anger, he opened the nation to circuses, cinemas, wrestling matches, and concerts. He handed out breadcrumbs, reinstating the bonuses and small privileges enjoyed by social servants and the military. Meanwhile, he led campaigns for silencing critical voices. Writers drowned in silence and filled the nation’s prisons, while the world hailed the young tyrant for allowing women to drive—while taking from them the right to speak. He gave women necklaces and better careers at the same time as he held his own mother under house arrest, so she could not rebel against him.

The world is occupied with the elegant young prince’s decrees, while the free word hides itself in fear, the free word that is stoned and whipped. There is no solace for women, who he keeps under his political mantle, so they cannot be heard. There is no comfort for the true reformers forced into silence in the prisons of the prince—the naked king.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Don’t ask, Don’t tel: The “Right” to Drive for Women in Saudi Villages

Sunday, June 24, 2018, was a historic moment in Saudi Arabia, as women drove their cars for the first time following the end of the driving ban. However, for some of them, the decision to lift the ban in the kingdom was less relevant, not because they are ultraconservatives or antiwomen driving activists but because they have been driving for years in Saudi villages, remote areas, and across agricultural cities without facing major reprisals. 

There have never been actual provisions in the Saudi traffic rules that explicitly prevent women from driving. Instead, the ban on women driving was culturally and socially constructed, enforced by the traffic police and the Ministry of Interior and morally supported by the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Pre- vention of Vice (commonly referred to as the religious police). 

Womens-rights activists used Article (32) of the Traffic Law, which stipulates that no person shall be permitted to drive any vehicle before obtaining the neces- sary driving license,to defend their right to sit behind the wheel and to prove that they are not lawbreakers but law adherents. Activists argued that, by means of the use of the gender-neutral term person, this provision is not limited to men. Failing to issue drivers licenses to women thus lacks a legal base. This reading of the law encouraged Saudi women to defy the ban for decades, from the November 6, 1990, car demonstration in the city of Riyadh to the 2009 petition and later the well-known 2011 Women2Drive campaign and the October 26 call in 2013. Alongside these actions, intellectuals submitted various motions and letters to the ruling royal fam- ily to demand an overturn of the infamous ban.
People in central cities in Saudi Arabia, such as Riyadh and Jeddah, have heard the stories of women villagers and Bedouins carrying handguns for protection and driving pickup vehicles over hundreds of miles through a harsh environment to work on their familiesfarmland, bring their kids to school, go to grocery stores, harvest crops, and transport livestock to the market. The complex natural terrain in these villages, which often lack good infrastructure, renders driving an important issue for all family members, as it is the only means of mobility through mountains and desert plains. The stories of these women have been rarely covered by local press. One exceptional report was published in 2010 in the Saudi Al Riyadh Newspaper, where they wrote about Norah Hamdan, a fifty-five-year-old woman who told the newspaper that she had been driving big tankers to bring clean drinking water to her village and to other villages for years and that she had never experienced disrespect or harassment ( The report on Hamdan was presented in cautious language, mentioning the stories of women driving outside urban areas yet emphasizing that women in cities would be permitted to drive only when society was ready. Given Hamdans story, it was initially difficult to fathom how women in Saudi Arabias most conservative communities were driving their vehicles without back- lash, unrest, or defamation campaigns, while womens-rights activists protesting the ban had their passports confiscated or were imprisoned or forced into exile.

Gradually, I realized that women driving in their villages and in small provinces was normal because their family survival depended on the motor vehicle, given the lack of public transportation. Male household members leave home from dawn until dusk to work in nearby cities, leaving Bedouin women responsible for tak- ing care of their familiesdaily needs. The limited financial incomes of the families prevent them from hiring private drivers to carry the work on their behalf. More- over, hardworking mothers and their daughters in villages cannot hire drivers, as this puts them in a state of khalwa, or seclusionin an enclosed area with a man who is not a relative, which is forbidden according to the Saudi interpretation of Sunni Islam. This leaves women in the hinterlands with no alternative to sitting behind the wheel in order to manage family affairs. 

For these reasons the police have traditionally turned a blind eye to such situations, as familieslivelihoods depend on the ability of women to drive in these areas. As a result, police officers do not target female villagers despite the illegality of their defying the ban. Moreover, police authorities do not have the capacity or the resources to effectively patrol remote areas, resulting in their acceptance of this sit- uation. This also demonstrates the pragmatic nature of the Saudi regime. Knowing that preventing female villagers from driving may cause tension and jeopardize the villagerslivelihoods, thus potentially leading to popular uprisings, the authorities have opted for following an unwritten policy of dont ask, dont tell.” 

While women in urban areas were banned from driving, women in villages would express their surprise at the punitive measures taken against women caught sitting behind the wheel in big cities. Women in rural areas often recall that their female ancestors rode horses and camels and argue, therefore, that there is no reason for them not to drive cars as a form of modern transportation. Aware of the enforcement of the ban in urban areas, however, female villagers driving their cars close to the borders of large cities would switch their seats with their teenage sons or male relatives to avoid problems.

Saudi women in the periphery faced trouble with the authorities for the first time coinciding with the Women2Drive campaign. The Saudi polices severe mea- sures and crackdown on women campaigning to drive cars in 2011, in the wake of the Arab Spring, was extended to villages even though women there had not demanded an end to the ban. This was the case of a Saudi woman in a small village in Al-Qassim region, who was arrested with her mother and sister as she drove a Datsun pickup truck. The leaders of the village defended the woman driver, arguing that she was not defying the rules but had always driven because of family need. As the ban was socially constructed and legally supported, the tolerance toward women driving vehicles in some of the most conservative villages in the kingdom is also socially constructed and motivated by the local need for it. 

The question is, If women were allowed to drive outside central cities, why did the regime arrest the 1990 car demonstrators and the Women2Drive campaigners? Why, at the time of this writing, in October 2018, do prominent womens-rights activists who fought for the right to drive remain behind bars after the lifting of the ban? 
People in Saudi Arabia live under an order that regulates and controls every aspect of their public and private lives through a system of rewards for those who show loyalty to the regime and its ideology, as well as a system of harsh punishments for those who dare to defy political and social norms. By means of this dual system the regime ensures full control of society. The royal family strives to keep issues related to womens rights under the control of the patriarchal political system, as the regime fears a bottom-up approach to change that might spark the popular imag- ination and lead to further demands for sustainable reforms. Thus rights are granted by the king only when he so wishes, not in response to peoples demands. It is within this context that the authoritiestolerance toward women driving in villages needs to be understood, as this allows the regime to avoid popular discontent or a revo- lution of the hungryin the hinterlands. At the same time, womens-rights activists challenging the regime narrative in big cities has always led to crackdowns, because the regime fears that this will lead to demands for greater democratic change by its people. 

The different treatment of women driving in villages and cities shows that the Saudi regime continues to reserve for itself the absolute right to interpret womens needs and priorities. It also demonstrates the totalitarian nature of the system, where individual narratives and demands outside the states interests and agenda are not tolerated. Now the major challenge for Saudi women is to safeguard these limited positive steps, such as the right to drive; work to challenge patriarchal norms; and push forward for further holistic and sustainable gender reforms. Women in central cities as well as in the peripheries continue to suffer and fight in one way or another against both a political system that regulates and controls every aspect of public and private life and an entrenched patriarchal social structure that keeps them in political, social, and legal shackles.

HANA AL-KHAMRI is a writer and analyst who has worked for a local Saudi Arabian newspaper. Currently based in Sweden, she writes for the Washington Post and Al Jazeera English, among other publications. She is also the national program coordinator for the organization ActionAid, working on improving girlsand womens rights. She is author of Women of Ink: Female Journalists in Gender-Apartheid Saudi Arabia (forthcoming). Contact: Twitter: @hanaalkhamri.

JMEWS Journal of Middle East Womens Studies 15:2 July 2019© 2019 by the Association for Middle East Womens Studies

Saturday, March 9, 2019

A Boy in the Saudi Kingdom of Men - A True Story

Mohammed (MO) Al-Khamri

@Mohammed Alkhamri

I unleash my tied up spirit in the vast city of barricades, dancing, disguised by the open air, to the sound of hip-hop music. My big smile and curly hair are my companions in this free dance; where some of my thick hairlocks cover my ears to protect them from this city sunken in its fakeness and virtuous claims: "Are you a boy or a girl?" I am a human!

I shout and I hit the ground to break the chains of the patriarchal city and the gender-based norms that restrict me. A girl comes to me out of nowhere and pulls my hair: "Is this your natural hair?" Yes, ma’am, this is not a wig, like the huge fakeness that is covering you from head to toe. I warn you, if you lay a hand on my hair again, it will be trapped inside by my wavy, loyal and stubborn Soldiers, and you will not be able to escape the intertwined tangled threads.

A cascade of thick hair locks fall down on my wide forehead that is worn-out with over thinking and fatigue. My glorious threads conceal many questions that have come in the form of wide wrinkles penetrating my twenties. These wrinkles are engraved with every slap, denouncement, punishment, and exclusion I face because of my beautiful, curly hair and my dancing soul.

Why is my city waging a war and conspiring against my very peaceful hair and very peaceful steps ?

"My son, cut your hair": My mother repeats the same sentence every morning, every evening, and with every encounter, out of love and fear for me of this city; a city that is shaken by the thick wavy hair of a young man with neat yet untamed curly threads that are impossible to be straightened; threads that are contrasting with the traditional image of the Middle Eastern man.

"Do not come back to school until you cut your hair and stop dancing": The high school principal prevented me from getting into the school because my hair is capable of “inciting the imitation of  infidels and revolutionaries” My hair “threatens society and its virtuous values”. I rub my head! Why all this? I resist and manage to got into class, just to be hit by the teacher's stick on my shoulder and dragged by my hair where some threads fall down as martyrs of the violations and beatings I had to face. I run away tapping and talking to my hair: “They will not let me enter the school until I redeem you as a sacrifice. Many around me are waiting for you, they want you to fall, to be swept away, to be buried in the trash and become nothing in order to live in the city of men!"

“Cut your hair, stop dancing or you will be arrested!” On my way to work, a policeman stops me, his eyes fall on my huge curly hair, and along with his colleagues they mock me and laugh at me because of my curly “Afro” hair, or “Kadash”. When I protest, I am sent to detention on charges of having thick curly hair and for dancing freely. I was arrested and the accused was my hair, my dance that did not steal, did not hurt anyone, did not kill. There is no universal law to defend my right to keep my thick curly hair, my dancing body regardless of my gender, there is no lawyer to defend me. I am surrounded by soldiers who begin a session of humiliation and degradation of me. "You are a girl when you let your hair grow like that and dance… you are not a man"

I remain calm and let out a deep breath from the deepest point of my soul, while my hair locks fly with pride in front of them and drop down on my face. They push me and kick! My silence kills them, a death sentence on my hair is announced and the appeal is  rejected. I am resisting for my hair... for my dignity... For the last hip hop dance. But they tie me up and hurl curses at me. They begin to cut my hair arbitrarily, brutally and violently.. My hair is clipped from the roots for this sick masculinity to prevail. My hair is distorted during this violent process and I lose all my beautiful curly threads..

The soldiers of the city withdraw with their uniforms and equipment, leaving me behind drowning in the middle of a pile of hair and a great sadness in the detention room. They leave me bleeding from the head with even deeper scars in my soul. I curl up on the floor, surrounded by a thousand threads of my curly hair. But then,  suddenly, a voice comes to me...

"Mohammed, do not be sad... we will grow again!"

Friday, February 1, 2019

Torture, reform and women's rights in Saudi Arabia

Women are being tortured for demanding basic rights in 'reformist' Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's Saudi Arabia.
Today, every critical voice in Saudi Arabia is undoubtedly under threat, but the Saudi women's rights activists are feeling the pressure the most, writes Al-Khamri.[File:AP]
Today, every critical voice in Saudi Arabia is undoubtedly under threat, but the Saudi women's rights activists are feeling the pressure the most, writes Al-Khamri.[File:AP]
On November 20, Amnesty International published a report detailing how Saudi women's rights activists, arbitrarily arrested in a government crackdown earlier this year, have faced sexual harassment and torture during their interrogation. Citing three separate testimonies, the rights group said the detainees were held in solitary confinement and faced repeated electrocution and flogging, leaving some of them unable to stand or walk. One of the activists reportedly tried to take her own life repeatedly inside the prison.
Saudi Arabia has a long history of forcefully silencing women who dare to stand up to the kingdom's unjust laws and patriarchal gender norms. Almost four decades ago in 1990, 47 brave Saudi women were harshly punished by the authorities for participating in a major driving-ban protest - they were arrested and their passports were taken away. Some of them were even sacked from their jobs or expelled from their schools. 
But until recently, despite being abused, harassed and at times jailed, most Saudi women's rights activists were managing to avoid the full force of the regime's violence due to their high socioeconomic status. Their skin colour and religious and tribal identity were also playing a role in determining the level of abuse and harassment they were subjected once they were arrested. While undocumented female migrants and poor, underprivileged Saudi citizens were treated abominably in the kingdom's prisons, Saudi activists from privileged backgrounds were being dealt with with relative restraint.
Amnesty International's latest report, however, reveals that even a privileged background can no longer protect women's rights activists from the brutality of the country's current leadership.
This move towards indiscriminate oppression is a natural expansion of the kingdom's de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's (MBS) one-dimensional approach to all forms of dissent and opposition.

Stifling all forms of dissent

For years, the Saudi regime has been making a clear distinction between individuals campaigning for social rights without directly challenging or blaming the political system, and individuals who are demanding, or supporting the calls for, holistic political reform and constitutional monarchy. While the regime usually allowed some limited and informal breathing space for the former, the members of the latter group always faced systemic and relentless repression.
This is not the case any longer.

Mohammed bin Salman: The dark side of Saudi Arabia's crown prince

Under MBS' oppressive and unilateral rule, regardless of their nature and aims, all ground-up efforts to bring about change and social reform are being swiftly stifled. In the eyes of the current leadership, every single organic, bottom-up rights movement is a threat to the authoritarian system - a threat to the survival of the pseudo-reformist, despotic rule of the young crown prince.
The new leadership does not care whether a critic is a woman or a man, from a privileged background or not. Whether someone is trying to improve the Saudi society within the limitations of the current system, or calling for constitutional monarchy. MBS has a "you are either with me, or against me" mentality - no critic, opponent or dissident gets an easy pass under his rule. 
This is why Saudi women's rights movements, which for the most part demand reform within the existing political system, are facing the worst crackdown since their formation in the early 1990s.

'Cosmetic' reforms

The Amnesty report on the torture and sexual abuse of prominent female Saudi activists, which came on the back of the controversy surrounding the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, was another blow to the "reformist" image MBS has been working hard to maintain since taking power three and a half years ago.
The testimonies cited in the report not only demonstrated the regime's indiscriminate brutality, but also showed the world yet again that MBS' reform efforts, especially on the women's rights front, are purely cosmetic.

Why did Saudi Arabia lift the driving ban on women only now?

Hana Al-Khamri
by Hana Al-Khamri
In June this year, the international community welcomed and praised the Saudi leadership's decision to allow women to drive. While many across the world saw this development as a confirmation of MBS' reformist credentials, anyone who had been watching the kingdom closely knew immediately that this had nothing to do with giving women more rights and autonomy and everything to do with improving the new leadership's image in the West and encouraging foreign investment.
After all, using women's issues for political leverage has long been part of the Saudi playbook. For example, in 2001, just three months after 9/11, Saudi authorities granted women with national ID cards for the first time in the kingdom's history, in an apparent attempt to gain some favour in the West and protect the royal family. A decade later, in 2011, women were allowed to participate in municipal elections and two years later they were appointed to the consultative Shura council for the first time. Both reforms were implemented not to elevate the status of women in society, but to stop the ideas of Arab Spring from taking root in the kingdom.
Today, MBS is following in the footsteps of his predecessors by making cosmetic and inconsequential women's rights reforms for political leverage, while forcefully silencing the cries for genuine reform. But he is also going one step further than his ancestors and succumbing to McCarthyism in his efforts to consolidate power. He is accusing all the critics and opponents of his leadership - regardless of social status, political inclination, gender and attitudes towards the monarchy - of treason and he is questioning their loyalty to their country.
MBS, with the help of his father King Salman, has already assigned loyal figures to all important sovereign positions, especially in the judiciary. Since his rise to power in 2015 and amid an escalation of politically motivated arrests in the Kingdom, hundreds of new judges and prosecutors loyal to him have been appointed to important positions. Last year, the Presidency of State Security, a security body overseen by the king, was created to combine the counterterrorism and domestic intelligence services under one roof. This presidency, which is naturally loyal to the current leadership, also has total authority over the fates of all political prisoners.
As a result of these efforts, the "reformist" crown prince has transformed Saudi Arabia into a prison. Under his rule, hundreds of writers, human rights activists (some of them minors), academics, economists, clerics and opponents within the royal family have been arrested simply because they dared to disagree with him. Women's rights activists were put in jail on trumped up charges of "treason". Moreover, they were sexually assaulted and tortured during their incarceration.

The Saudi women detained for demanding basic human rights

All this clearly demonstrates that MBS' blueprint for "reform" excludes the reshaping and rewriting of the social contract between the citizen and the state on democratic grounds, in a way that would ensure active political participation, promote freedom and respect civil, political and women's rights.
MBS views reform only as a useful tool to help him gain favour with the West and consolidate more political and economic power. Therefore, it should not surprise anyone that the reality on the ground in Saudi Arabia is nothing like the reformist dream MBS has been trying to sell abroad. The "reformist-minded" Saudi leadership is waging a covert war against Saudi Arabia's already suffocating civil society.

Not the time to call for more 'reform'

Today, every critical voice in Saudi Arabia is undoubtedly under threat, but the Saudi women's rights activists are feeling the pressure the most. Unlike male activists in the kingdom, they are fighting against both an authoritarian political system and a patriarchal social structure that keeps women in political, social and legal shackles.
While pretending to implement a reform agenda that aims to elevate the status of women in Saudi Arabia, the current leadership is oppressing women further by classifying any real demand for rights and freedoms - even when they do not threaten the political system - as an attack on national cohesion.
As the Amnesty report clearly demonstrates, every Saudi woman who wants to have a say on her place in society is now facing the threat of not only harassment, incarceration and intimidation, but also torture and sexual abuse.
For this reason, this is not the time to speak of reform in Saudi Arabia. Instead, it is time to speak up about the crisis of legitimacy, oppression, brutality and the shrinking civil society in the country.
Saudi Arabia is undoubtedly going through one of the darkest periods in its recent history, however, all is not lost.
Despite all the torture, harassment and intimidation by the regime, and the pressures of a highly patriarchal society, Saudi feminists are still inventing creative methods to demand their rights and change their lives. They are displaying great resilience in the face of absolute repression and this remains a source of true inspiration and hope.

Unpack the story of the young Saudi woman Rahaf Mohammad Al Qnun.

Listen to my long interview at Voices of the Middle East and North Africa explaining political patriarchal structures and norms, the tragic tale of women oppression and the crackdown on civil society and freedom of expression in the Kingdom  

unpack the story of the young Saudi woman Rahaf Mohammad Al Qnun. Rahaf who decided to seek asylum abroad, with writer and analyst Hana Al-Khamri( ).


A young Saudi woman is facing execution — for taking part in nonviolent protests

Ali Adubisi is the director of the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights. Hana Al-Khamri is the author of a forthcoming book about female journalists in Saudi Arabia.
Israa al-Ghomgham, 28, first met the man who would later become her husband, Moussa al-Hashem in 2011, during the heady days of the Arab Spring. Like many others from Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, they eagerly seized the chance to call for civil and political rights and equality for all. Ghomgham and Hashem, who soon married, shared a deeply held cause: the desire for peaceful change. Like many of their fellow activists, they stuck to the path of nonviolent demonstrations and calls for reform.
The couple’s dreams for a better future were shattered in 2015, when the Saudi State Intelligence Service raided their home and arrested them. Since then they have spent years in arbitrary detention at a Dammam prison. In August of this year, the Public Prosecution Office finally gave them a non-public trial, alongside four activists, in the Specialized Criminal Court, which is notorious for trying political dissidents and activists as terrorism cases. The charges against Ghomgham and Hashem were based on their political chants, social media posts and involvement in demonstrations. None of the evidence suggested any participation in any violent acts. Yet the prosecutor demanded the death sentence for all of the detainees except one. Ghomgham thus became the first Saudi female activist to face the prospect of execution for acts of peaceful dissent. She faces her next hearing on Oct. 28, when the court may deliberate on her final sentencing.
To make matters worse, Saudi authorities summoned Israa’s father, Hassan al-Ghomgham, and charged him with “inciting the public against the state.” The father now risks being tried along the same lines as his daughter and son-in-law.
The brazen murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul is thus just one more depressing part of a much broader and worrying trend. Saudi local newspapers recently revealed that the Public Prosecution Office has increased the number of cases brought to the Specialized Criminal Court in 2018 by 182 percent over the previous year. The government, which has one of the highest execution rates in the world, has also been making widespread use of capital punishment (for both political and drug-related offenses). So far this year the authorities have already beheaded 93 people.
This reflects the hostile political climate and the policies of the country’s de facto ruler (and son of the king), Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is using draconian anti-terrorism laws to ruthlessly target human right activists and behead those who dare to oppose him.
Ghomgham’s and her fellow activists’ cases illustrate that the crown prince’s much-touted reform plans have nothing to do with respect for basic and fundamental rights and freedoms. These reforms are not meant to improve the justice system, promote the flourishing of civil society, or to build mechanisms for accountability.
The crown prince’s plans for reform aim above all to consolidate his own power. A look at the royal decrees issued since 2015 shows that the king and crown prince have appointed their own loyalists to top positions in the government, especially the security and the judiciary. Amid an escalating crackdown against political opponents, the king has issued rapid decisions in the past few years to appoint and promote hundreds of judges and members of the Public Prosecution Office. Last year, the government established a body ominously known as the Presidency of State Security, which is specifically designed to oversee the files of political prisoners.
The Saudi regime has pursued a two-track strategy to promote its aims: a charm offensive in the West as well as harsh reprisals against any country that dares criticize their human rights violations. (See the extraordinary retaliation against Canada after the government there issued a tweet critical of Riyadh.) The Khashoggi case has cast fresh light on this contradiction between the regime’s propaganda efforts overseas and the continuing war waged by the regime against human rights defenders inside the kingdom.
In retrospect, perhaps one of the biggest mistakes of the international community was allowing Saudi Arabia to participate in the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women despite the country’s horrific record on women’s rights. This may well have encouraged the regime to move so aggressively against Saudi feminists. Rewards without accountability invariably encourage the bad behavior of authoritarian regimes.

The time has come to isolate Saudi Arabia and for there to be an end to the international immunity the Saudi regime enjoys. There needs to be an immediate suspension of secret trials, death sentences and torture; the release of prisoners of conscience; and the opening of civil society space. Without this, the Saudi people will continue to be ruled by a regime that exercises absolute power and ignores human rights. The kingdom desperately needs an elected ruler who represents the people and complies with the values of democracy, freedom, justice and equality.

Monday, October 22, 2018

This is why Jamal Khashoggi was Murdered by the Saudi Regime

It's high time to end Saudi impunity

Jamal Khashoggi, a well-known and much respected Saudi war correspondent and columnist, disappeared on October 2 following a visit to the consulate of Saudi Arabia in Istanbul. At the time of his disappearance, he was a well-established critic of the current Saudi leadership and an op-ed contributor to the US newspaper, Washington Post.
Throughout his decades-long career in the media, Khashoggi worked for several Saudi Arabian and pan-Arab newspapers and until 2010 served as the editor-in-chief of one of the most controversial newspapers of his country, Al-Watan.
During his time at Al-Watan, Khashoggi managed to set a benchmark for quality journalism in Saudi Arabia. Under his leadership, the national daily dared to call for reform in the educational system and women's issues and also demanded the government to curb the powers of the religious police.
Khashoggi paid a heavy price for following an independent editorial policy at Al-Watan. He was fired from his role at the newspaper, not once but twice, both times for upsetting the regime and causing controversy. In 2003, he was asked to leave the newspaper only two months after being assigned editor-in-chief, allegedly for pursuing an editorial policy independent of the regime. Khashoggi was reinstated as the editor-in-chief of Al-Watan in 2007, but was fired again in 2010, for "pushing the boundaries of debate within Saudi society" according to his personal website.
To this day, many Saudi journalists, including myself, remember Khashoggi's tenure as the editor-in-chief of Al-Watan with envy and admiration.
Between 2005-2009, I was working for the Saudi newspaper Al-Madina as a reporter in the city of Jeddah. Like all the other national dailies, it was owned by the members of the royal family and an inner cycle of loyalists. It was under the strict control of the Ministry of Media, which in many ways resemble the infamous Ministry of Truth in George Orwell's 1984. 
In this environment, I started following the work of Khashoggi at Al-Watan closely.
As a young, female journalist, I viewed Al-Watan under Khashoggi's leadership as a perfect example of what a good Saudi newspaper should have been. The newspaper was shedding light on the religious police's abuse of power as well as the epidemic of domestic violence in the country, among other issues.
While Al-Watan was the emerging, brave voice of liberalism in the kingdom, my newspaper, Al-Madina, was a platform for ultra-conservatives who were happy to follow the regime's narratives on every subject. Khashoggi's bravery made it impossible for me to ignore the shortcomings of my place of employment, and I started to feel more and more resentful about the censorship my work was subjected to at Al-Madina. 
Eventually, I could no longer bow to the oppressive policies of Al-Madina's leadership and the Orwellian Ministry of Media, so I decided to publish my censored articles in other Arabic platforms, based outside the kingdom. But I knew that this idealistic stance was undoubtedly going to endanger my life and freedom in Saudi Arabia, so I decided to leave the country.
The very same fear eventually drove Khashoggi out of the country too. Last year, he chose to leave the kingdom to preserve his intellectual integrity and freedom of expression.
Even though I had been following Khashoggi's work for years, I only met him in person earlier this year, in the Norwegian capital, Oslo. In his eyes, I saw a sense of despair about the future of his homeland. He expressed his fears about the possible consequences of Saudi Crown Prince and de-facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman's (MBS) use of "divide and rule" and "You are either with us or against us" strategies to manufacture social cohesion. He told me how some members of the establishment, who have contributed to the formation of the country, are now being excluded from reform efforts and are constantly humiliated by the crown prince and his close aides. He painted a grim picture of what he thinks awaits Saudi Arabia in the near future, but also insisted that he will continue to write no matter what, even if it is only to contribute to the historical record.

A major threat to the regime

MBS perceived Jamal Khashoggi as a serious threat to his authority for several reasons. First of all, Khashoggi was not a Western analyst or commentator, so the regime could not dismiss his criticisms as a foreigner's smear attempts. Moreover, he was not only a Saudi citizen but also - unlike many Saudi opposition figures who were forced into exile decades ago and have since been detached from the Saudi society - was a prominent member of the Saudi society and establishment until very recently. He had worked in local newspapers for years, was once a trusted adviser to the monarchy and was even settled in the kingdom until last year. As a result, in the eyes of many Saudi citizens, Khashoggi was one of them - someone who loves and wants the best for his country. His image as an establishment insider who is trying to change things for the better gave him an unprecedented credibility and influence among native Saudis. Furthermore, his close links to the members of the old establishment, who are discontent with the direction MBS is taking the country, has long been a cause for concern for the crown prince, who appears to be very cautious about a possible coup d'etat attempt.
Another reason why Khashoggi became a primary target for the Saudi regime was that he voiced his critique of the regime in the US. Washington has always been an important ally for Saudi Arabia, but ever since MBS became the country's de-facto leader, relations with the US became even more important for the regime. The crown prince has invested heavily in constructing a reformist image for himself in the US, in an attempt to overcome the crisis of legitimacy he has been suffering at home. He paid for positive ads to be published or broadcast in the US media, invited prominent American journalists to his palace to woo them, put his support behind Saudi lobbying organisations in the US and appointed his younger brother Prince Khaled bin Salman as the Saudi Ambassador to the US. All these efforts had a single aim: to convince the masses back home that he is a legitimate leader that has the backing of a major global power. Through his lobbying efforts in the US, MBS was trying to legitimise his jumping ahead in the line of succession, his attempts to concentrate power in his and his brothers' hands and his efforts to force the entire Saudi establishment to embrace his reform blueprint without any discussion or debate.
However, all these efforts were seriously challenged by the voice of a single influential Saudi citizen, who had already earned his credentials as a patriot and reformist in the eyes of the Saudi public: Jamal Khashoggi.
When Khashoggi called for reform through pages of Al-Watan, he was forced to resign. When he criticised the exclusion of the diverse views of Saudi citizens in MBS' 2017 blueprint for reform, he was ordered to remain silent and forced into exile.
Despite all threats, he continued to write, question and criticise. 
Now he has disappeared, and if we are to believe the Turkish authorities, has been permanently silenced.
The tragic fate of Khashoggi is frightening for everyone who dares to criticise the Saudi regime. By disappearing Khashoggi, this fascist regime has announced that from now on it will deal with critical voices in anyway it deems fit, ignoring all international conventions on human rights, diplomacy and civility. The regime believes that it can behave in this way, because the international community failed to hold it to account for its previous crimes. 
The Saudi regime has long been using its economic and political leverage to terrorise democratic states, track down and harass activists inside the kingdom and abroad, and commit war crimes in Yemen. It has also been incarcerating political dissidents, royalist opponents, reformists, economic/social critics, religious scholars and leaders, human and women's rights activists. The kingdom did not face any serious repercussions for any of these crimes. In the face of these atrocities, the world chose to stay silent and as a result, the regime felt emboldened enough to disappear a well-known and respected journalist like Jamal Khashoggi in its consulate, in foreign sovereignty. 
Khashoggi's disappearance has to be a turning point. The regime needs to be named and shamed, and it should finally be excluded from international platforms - especially from human rights entities such as the UN Human Rights Council and the Women's Rights Committee on Women's Empowerment and Gender Equality - where it can do much damage.
By disappearing a prominent journalist and one of the strongest critical voices in Saudi Arabia, the kingdom, under the leadership of MBS, once again proved that it is a threat to international values and order. The world can no longer afford to stay silent.