King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who ruled since 2005, has died at a time of serious regional unrest – political, economic and social. He presided over a regime that has a zero tolerance approach to dissent, peaceful or not. For expressing opinions critical of the political system or the religious establishment, thousands have been prosecuted, detained, banned from travel, or – as in the case of 11 members of a civil rights organisation working to end arbitrary detention and calling for a constitutional monarchy – given lengthy prison sentences .
But western leaders have always seen Abdullah as a friend. In fact the head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, said of him: “In a very discreet way he was a strong advocate of women” – despite the fact that two Saudi women drivers’ activists have been held in prisons since early December on terror-related charges of using social media to incite public opinions and defame the country.
There’s little sign that human rights in the country are improving. Waleed Abul-Khair – the lawyer for Raif Badawi, who has been publicly flogged – was sentenced to 15 years in prison for setting up an independent human rights organisation, under a new law concerning communication with international organisations, questioning the religious scripture or atheism as an act of terror.
The absolute monarchy of Saudi Arabia means in theory that the king holds sole power over appointing any official or deciding any policy: in all senses a guardian over his subjects. So he should be solely responsible for any violations of people’s rights.
In reality, the king delegates powers: domestically to the minister of interior, and internationally to the foreign minister. This dissection of powers can leave observers puzzled. While rights have been restricted internally, in foreign affairs we’ve seen the walk with world leaders in Paris this month to condemn violence against free speech; an alliance with western countries to fight Islamic State in Iraq and Syria; the establishment of a world-class centre for inter-faith dialogue; and a prominent position on the UN women’s council.
But these gestures have not helped Saudi women. The few in senior positions have limited authority, and female employment is one of the lowest in the world. Moreover, the means of travel for women is restricted, and their freedom in general is severely controlled by the country’s system of guardianship.
The political hierarchy – and Salman, the new king, in particular – argue that if moves to democracy and modernisation are too quick, it would unsettle the country’s dominant religious and ethnic structure. Within hours of his accession to the throne, Salman declared: “We will continue adhering to the correct policies that Saudi Arabia has followed since its establishment.”
The new deputy crown prince, Muhammad bin Nayef– now second in line to the throne – has been hailed by the US as the engineer of the rehabilitation programme for militant religious extremists. But the root causes of extremism are obvious: people who are denied shared participation and representation in their own country are fleeing to conflict-stricken nations to escape persecution. And Nayef’s increased influence is particularly concerning. He has been responsible for interrogation, imprisonment or travel bans for key liberals and reformers.
Despite this he’s faced little international censure: indeed, within days of the imprisonment of two activists for defying the ban on women driving, President Obama received Nayef in the Oval Office. Ironically, according to a White House statement on the event, the two met to discuss how to “delegitimise Isil’s extremist ideology”.
Nayef, now arguably the most powerful man in Saudi Arabia, is shrewd in how he presents himself. To the outside world he is a progressive, gently tugging a backward and ultra-conservative population into the 21st century. He speaks fluent English and has been trained at both the FBI and Scotland Yard.
But within Saudi Arabia he is an old-world dictator. Citizens are not allowed to be in the same room as him. When women activists last year attempted to meet him they were led into an empty room with a two-way camera and a huge television screen on which they briefly saw and spoke with him.
The prince’s strategy is to maintain a low civil rights ceiling, while strengthening and reinforcing a pact with the religious establishment: the government keeps the people in the mosques in return for the mosques safeguarding the absolute monarchy. Sadly, his strategy seems to be working.
Hala Al-Dosari is a Saudi writer and activist.
• This article was co-written by a woman blogger based in Saudi Arabia. She fears prosecution for contributing to this article and wishes to remain anonymous.