Saudi Arabia’s reformers now face a terrible choice

A Saudi woman checks a car at the first automotive showroom solely dedicated for women in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in January. (Reem Baeshen/Reuters)
A Saudi woman checks a car at the first automotive showroom solely dedicated for women in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in January. (Reem Baeshen/Reuters)

It is appalling to see 60- and 70-year-old icons of reform being branded as “traitors” on the front pages of Saudi newspapers.

Women and men who championed many of the same social freedomsincluding women driving — that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is now advancing were arrested in Saudi Arabia last week. The crackdown has shocked even the government’s most stalwart defenders.

The arrests illuminate the predicament confronting all Saudis. We are being asked to abandon any hope of political freedom, and to keep quiet about arrests and travel bans that impact not only the critics but also their families. We are expected to vigorously applaud social reforms and heap praise on the crown prince while avoiding any reference to the pioneering Saudis who dared to address these issues decades ago.

Last week’s arrests were simply about controlling the narrative. The message is clear to all: Activism of any sort has to be within the government, and no independent voice or counter-opinion will be allowed. Everyone must stick to the party line.

Is there no other way for us? Must we choose between movie theaters and our rights as citizens to speak out, whether in support of or critical of our government’s actions? Do we only voice glowing references to our leader’s decisions, his vision of our future, in exchange for the right to live and travel freely — for ourselves and our wives, husbands and children too? I have been told that I need to accept, with gratitude, the social reforms that I have long called for while keeping silent on other matters — ranging from the Yemen quagmire, hastily executed economic reforms, the blockade of Qatar, discussions about an alliance with Israel to counter Iran, and last year’s imprisonment of dozens of Saudi intellectuals and clerics.

This is the choice I’ve woken up to each morning ever since last June, when I left Saudi Arabia for the last time after being silenced by the government for six months.

I wonder if, like me, Lujain Al-Hathloul, one of the most prominent Saudi women activists who was arrested last week, has struggled with such dilemmas. Or if her lawyer, Ibrahim Modeimigh, deals with these inner conflicts, too. State Security accused them and others of being involved in activities that “encroach on religious and national constants; the group had suspicious contact with external parties supporting their activities and recruiting people working in sensitive government positions”.

In short, though she complied with the government’s order to be silent about her decades of work in support of women driving, and even allowed the crown price alone to take credit for lifting the driving ban, she and her associates are being punished for speaking with the foreign media tasked with covering next month’s lifting of the ban and other social changes in Saudi Arabia.

There is nothing remarkable about having media and foreign embassy contacts. When I lived in Saudi Arabia as a journalist, this was a regular occurrence. It’s happening even more often given the pace of government-promoted reforms. Yet now, unlike two or three years ago, any foreign contact that deviates from the approved script is treasonous. Yes, treasonous –that is the word that was used to publicly defame those arrested.

I have never witnessed such a draconian response to anything as innocuous as simply speaking with foreign journalists and officials. It does not align with the good impressions of openness and reforms that the crown prince successfully reinforced during his recent visit to Europe and the United States. It undercuts his interviews with journalists and off-the-record editorial board meetings with major newspapers — including The Washington Post, where he spent about two hours talking to editors about his reform policies. Religious fanaticism that had tarnished Saudi Arabia’s image for decades has given way to a new and perhaps more pernicious fanaticism, a cult of blind loyalty to our leader.

This is a Faustian bargain that I will not make. I suspect Lujain and her associates may have felt the same way.

I expect that I will still wake up every morning and ponder the choice I have made to speak my mind about what is happening in Saudi Arabia. It is a pattern that I have grown accustomed to. Despite the anguish it causes me, it reminds me of how much I miss my country and my home. But now, after these fresh arrests and the public humiliation of these individuals, my doubts are greatly diminished. The social reforms that are so important to Saudi Arabia cannot come at the expense of the public space once available to us for discussion and debate. Repression and intimidation are not — and never should be– the acceptable companions of reform.

Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist and author. Follow @JKhashoggi

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