The Saudi Crown Prince’s Digital Iron Fist

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia makes no secret of his desire to transform his country. Since he began consolidating power in 2015, he has marketed himself to domestic and international audiences as a force of modernity, touting an agenda of cultural liberalization and economic reform. In 2016, he outlined his would-be revolution with the release of “Saudi Vision 2030,” an ambitious plan to establish Saudi Arabia as a “global investment powerhouse” and “a gateway to the world.”

The development of a “sophisticated digital infrastructure” is at the heart of Prince Mohammed’s vision. And while many of his proposals remain unrealized — loftily promised futuristic cities have yet to materialize — the crown prince’s obsession with technology has wrought some significant changes. He has overhauled numerous state agencies from the top down, establishing “e-government solutions” for services like court fees, charitable donations, health care and travel records. The slew of new e-portals are overseen by the newly created National Digitization Unit, a centralizing agency tasked with being a “disrupter” of the status quo and an “incubator” for a modern information society.

The shift toward “e-government” has brought welcome efficiency to Saudi Arabia’s sluggish public sector. The government boasts that Meras, an interface for starting businesses, has cut the wait time for some financial services from 81 days to 24 hours, while the Ministry of Interior’s app Absher gives citizens access to 130 government procedures from their phones. With a population that is largely young (roughly 70 percent of Saudis are under 35) and tech-savvy (there are approximately 1.4 cellphones for every resident), Saudi Arabia is primed for such digitization. According to the government’s own data, Absher alone logged over 20 million transactions between mid-2015 and August 2018.

When using these apps, Saudis make a familiar trade-off: swapping access to their personal information and devices in exchange for convenience. But unlike, say, a customer of Amazon, a Saudi citizen often has little choice. Certain government fees, for example, are now payable only online, according to a Saudi journalist.

At a time when the Saudi government has grown increasingly repressive toward dissent — and increasingly willing to use technology to censor its citizens — the government-sponsored digitization could have grave implications for the rights of the Saudi people.

For now, plenty of Saudis remain enamored of the convenience of e-services. “A lot of these new apps have really made life a lot easier,” a young Saudi professional in Riyadh recently told me. (He refused to be identified for this article, citing worries he could be targeted by the state for speaking to foreign media.) “For the most part, people are really happy about it, and I haven’t heard many of them asking questions about privacy.” He noted that the apps and online portals largely eliminated longstanding systems of bribery and favoritism.

At the same time, the Saudi government is expanding its data-collection and surveillance capabilities in less visible, and less voluntary, ways. In recent years, the country has installed thousands of cameras and monitoring devices along sidewalks and roads, expanded the use of biometrics for citizens and travelers alike, and introduced a “Smart Hajj” program to manage — and track — millions of annual pilgrims. It has also deployed American intelligence software to surveil its citizens and purchased millions of dollars’ worth of British-made “telecommunications interception equipment.” (It has also been accused, along with neighboring United Arab Emirates, of employing Israeli spyware to target the personal devices of Saudi civilians.)

These reforms have come alongside a sweeping set of crackdowns, also directed by the crown prince, to silence activists, dissidents and intellectuals across the political spectrum. In the past three years alone, Saudi authorities have arrested or detained hundreds of citizens, from the women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul to religious moderates like Salman al-Awda, who currently faces the death penalty. The journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018, had fled the country the year before to escape this suppression.

In this crackdown, the Saudi state has relied heavily on 21st-century technology. Though Mr. Khashoggi’s death was, by all accounts, a medieval slaughter, there is evidence that the Saudi government used advanced spyware to track him long before the act. Since his killing, numerous reports have indicated that his former colleagues and fellow activists have been subjected to similar efforts.

One of these targets is Iyad al-Baghdadi, who worked with Mr. Khashoggi on projects promoting a free Arab press and now lives in Norway. Mr. Baghdadi, an online activist and a computer programmer by training, says the Saudi government’s digitization efforts reveal dangerous trends: “Generally, people like to say that technology is agnostic, neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad, but if you zoom out, you’ll see that there is a difference between technology that decentralizes power, such as blockchain, and technology such as data mining or A.I., that can serve to centralize power. The Saudi government is very interested in the latter — it allows them to analyze, monitor and even outsmart dissidents and social movements.”

Many Saudis are making similar inferences about their government’s intended trajectory for digitization. A Saudi professional, who declined to be identified in this article because he fears it could cause him trouble, noted Prince Mohamed’s courting of the Chinese government with concern. “I think he admires the way the Chinese are growing their economy while maintaining such tight control of its people,” he said. “I think he’d like to imitate their police state.”

The Saudi government has already used state-made apps, telecommunications infrastructure and social media campaigns toward repressive ends. As early as 2012, the Saudi Ministry of Interior was using a combination of tracking technology and text messages to monitor female citizens and alert their male “guardians” to their whereabouts. Later, Absher allowed men to exercise their “custodial” privileges to control female family members’ movement, as well as their access to many financial and legal services. In 2017, the ministry called on Saudis to use the government-sponsored hashtag #We’re_all_security to report on fellow citizens seen posting messages critical of the state. The same year, the government lifted a yearslong ban on Skype and WhatsApp calls, but announced that all calls would be monitored. The government has also increased the use of biometrics, including a new requirement that came into effect in 2016 for the collection of fingerprints with all purchases of SIM cards.

Yet despite rapid digital advancements, Prince Mohamed is still far from achieving any Orwellian ideal. Saudi Arabia’s large size and uneven development mean his proposed economic, cultural and technological overhauls of the country are likely to take much longer than his Emerati neighbors’ — if they succeed at all.

And while Saudi Arabia’s digitization raises concerns about potential abuse, it may also offer citizens new opportunities to work, create — and even resist. Many government-sponsored vocational programs and incubators give participants the chance to develop their skills in the tech sector; Absher’s interface has allowed numerous women to hack into their guardians’ accounts to issue themselves travel documents and flee abuse. And despite its heavy censorship, the state-funded expansion of high-speed internet infrastructure and tech-centered higher education may already be sowing the seeds for the next generation of resistance. Technology has always been crucial for activism in Saudi Arabia, and it is likely to remain a frontier in the battle over human rights in the kingdom for years to come.

Sarah Aziza writes about gender, human rights and the Middle East.

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