When Elites Get a Taste of Their Own Medicine

Members of the Saudi royal family depicted on a billboard in the capital city of Riyadh in 2015. Credit Aya Batrawy/Associated Press
Members of the Saudi royal family depicted on a billboard in the capital city of Riyadh in 2015. Credit Aya Batrawy/Associated Press

In late 2006, I traveled to Saudi Arabia on behalf of Human Rights Watch to discuss human rights with Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, then the assistant interior minister for security affairs. He explained to me the merits of his country’s project to rehabilitate extremists by detaining several thousand Saudis until religious leaders declared them reformed.

It wasn’t a problem, he argued, that the detentions were arbitrary and outside the law or that no evidence of wrongdoing had been brought before a judge. Everyone knew the people detained were caught up in extremism, and it was for the good of the country, he said. Indeed, he had personally overseen the detentions of hundreds of other Saudis he felt were a danger to the country.

This year, the tables were turned on Mohammed bin Nayef. In June, reports say, he was slapped with a travel ban and effectively put under house arrest; in November, his bank accounts were frozen.

Just as in his anti-extremist campaign, these restrictions were not ordered through any legal process. This time, they were thanks to the whims of his cousin, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Some would point to this as karma. But in the wake of the recent arrests and detentions of over 200 Saudis accused vaguely of corruption — including top businessmen, government and security officials, and members of the royal family — it is better understood as a portent for all of Saudi Arabia’s citizens, powerful and powerless alike. The Saudi elites have realized, perhaps for the first time, that they too can be subject to the same unjust, lawless prosecutions previously reserved mostly for political dissidents and terrorism suspects.

Saudi Arabia lacks a written penal code. So a judge can convict a person of a host of non-crimes like “witchcraft” or “sorcery,” or lash a blogger and imprison him for 10 years for “insulting Islam.”

Saudi elites had long been immune to the worst failures of this brutal system. Their wealth and freedom to travel — sometimes by virtue of a handy second passport from a Western country — allowed them to flee the social, political and religious confines of their Riyadh homes. Now they know that no one is really safe when there are no laws or institutions to protect you.

Some defenders of Prince Mohammed and the Saudi monarchy are less concerned with the rights of the accused, confident that they will never have to face justice there. They have lauded the mass arrests as evidence that Prince Mohammed is serious about taking on corruption, and some even liken the forfeiture of billions of dollars of assets by those arrested in exchange for their freedom to plea bargains in America. (One rival prince, Mutaib bin Abdullah, who had controlled the National Guard, was released this week after reportedly handing over $1 billion.)

Outside of Saudi Arabia, we have a better term for such forfeitures by captive people without arrest warrants, evidence, legal representation or judicial oversight: “shakedowns.”

It’s no accident that those arrested represented the few power centers remaining outside Prince Mohammed’s control. They include the heads of the country’s leading media establishments, the chief of the one remaining security force previously outside his writ and representatives of the kingdom’s richest families. Nor is it coincidental that these arrests came on the heels of arrests in September of influential, independent voices, including intellectuals, human-rights activists and popular clerics.

If the government were serious about tackling the corruption, it could have introduced a conflict of interest law to address the self-dealing among government officials. Instead, it passed a “counterterrorism law” on Nov. 1 that further consolidates power in the new Public Prosecution and Presidency of the State Security, which reports directly to King Salman — and thus to Prince Mohammed, his most trusted adviser.

Under this law, any Saudi can be jailed as a “terrorist” for five to 10 years for portraying the king or crown prince “in a manner that brings religion or justice into disrepute.” This essay, if written by a Saudi in the country, could land the author in jail for years as a “terrorist.”

There’s no doubt that Prince Mohammed has tapped into a desperate urge among Saudis for reform. His confidence and his purported popularity have allowed him to promise changes — such as ending some aspects of government-sanctioned guardianship over women and allowing them to drive — for which even human rights groups like mine congratulate him.

But capricious bullying won’t curb abuses in Saudi Arabia, nor will it lead Saudis to trust that their country is committed to reform and the rule of law. And surely, many more Saudis are right now zipping their lips and keeping their heads down, wondering who’s next.

Sarah Leah Whitson is the Middle East and North Africa director for Human Rights Watch.

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