The apparent end to the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar and a reconciliation among the states involved prompts the question: when will the Saudi government release the citizens who were caught up in the conflict and imprisoned during the three and a half-year crisis?
In a breakthrough, it was announced on 4 January that Saudi Arabia had opened its land border with Qatar, paving the way for an easing of tensions that had led to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain severing diplomatic and trade ties with Qatar in mid-2017. On 5 January, the annual GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) summit took place in Saudi Arabia’s north-western Al-Ula province. And for the first time since the blockade on Qatar was imposed, the Qatari emir attended.
While reconciliation is a welcome development when it reduces the risk of conflict and harm, it is important to recognise the years-long onslaught on human rights by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt and their razing of established norms of diplomacy, which created the conflict with Qatar in the first place.
Since his rise to the position of Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman has transformed the domestic Saudi socio-political arena beyond recognition, largely for the worse. Due to the arrest and imprisonment of many scholars, activists and journalists, and a dramatic increase in executions, Saudi civil society is being suffocated.
The many prisoners of conscience now languishing in the kingdom’s prisons include my father, Dr Salman Alodah, whose plight is particularly noteworthy and perplexing. With a Twitter following of over 13 million and scholarly publications in various languages read by Muslims all over the globe, Alodah is more than just a reformist scholar of Islamic law. He is known for his embrace of social media platforms such as Snapchat and Instagram in an effort to reach people of all ages and all backgrounds.
Since his arrest in September 2017, Alodah has remained in solitary confinement. What triggered his arrest? A tweet on the Saudi-Qatar rift.
Shortly after the June 2017 announcement of the Saudi-led blockade on Qatar, officials from the royal court ordered Alodah to tweet a message in support of the action. Saudi officials have regularly relied on the religious sector to publicly endorse their policies, but Alodah refused, and argued that reconciliation was better than the path his government had chosen.
Disturbed by increasing regional tensions after the blockade, Alodah obliquely expressed his desire for reconciliation: the English translation of the original Arabic tweet states, “May Allah harmonise between their hearts for the benefit of their peoples.” A few days later, Saudi state security officers arrested him.
After holding him without charge for a year, Saudi authorities filed 37 charges against Alodah when they began his trial in September 2018 in the Specialized Criminal court, the country’s terrorism tribunal, in Riyadh. The charges in the ongoing trial include ordinary activities that in no way describe criminal acts under any body of law in the world, for example, “objecting to the boycott of Qatar” and “visiting Qatar on multiple occasions, including in 2015”.
Whether the reconciliation now between Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain on one side and Qatar on the other will be truly harmonious or good-willed is yet to be seen. But at the very least the Saudi government should supplement its positive diplomatic effort with meaningful reforms that reflect an effort to reconcile with its own people. Specifically, this should mean a reversal of Mohammed bin Salman’s policies that have resulted in the imprisonment of many prisoners of conscience, including women’s rights activists, scholars of Islamic law, academics and journalists.
As the blockade of Qatar seemingly comes to an end, it is only fitting that the one who prayed for the parties’ reconciliation also finds that his imprisonment has come to an end.
Abdullah Alaoudh is the son of Salman Alodah. He is director of research for the Gulf Region at Democracy for the Arab World Now and co-founder of the Saudi National Assembly party; Abderrahmane Amor is a commentator, academic and former staff member of the Bernie Sanders campaign for president.