Sheik-up: What the heck is the Saudi crown prince up to?
He wishes to present his reformist face to the West, but a crackdown on dissent tells a different story
Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman has implemented a string of reforms in his country, but with his ascension to crown prince in June 2017 has come an intensified crackdown on dissent.
Just a few months after the 33-year-old was appointed heir to the Gulf region’s most powerful throne, rights groups reported the first wave of arrests.
In September 2017, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International reported the arrest of dozens of writers, journalists, activists and religious leaders, including prominent Islamist cleric Sheikh Salman al-Awda.
It was around this time that columnist Jamal Khashoggi left the kingdom for self-imposed exile in the US.
Khashoggi, who has been missing since he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, had been banned from writing in the pan-Arab Al-Hayat newspaper following his defence of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Riyadh has blacklisted as a terror organisation.
The September 2017 arrests took place shortly before the kingdom announced it was lifting a decades-long ban on women drivers, seen as a sign that the ultra-conservative nation may be heading towards a more “modern” society.
The announcement was part of Mohammed’s Vision 2030 plan for economic and social reforms as Riyadh prepares for a post-oil era.
In a rare public appearance in October, the crown prince, known as MBS, said he would strive for “a country of moderate Islam that is tolerant of all religions and to the world”.
While many in the international community lauded his efforts to modernise the country, another wave of arrests was set to take place.
In November, dozens of princes, businessmen and senior officials were detained in what the authorities said was an anti-corruption crackdown.
Suspects, including billionaire Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, were held at Riyadh’s luxury Ritz-Carlton hotel for three months and freed only after reaching substantial financial settlements with the authorities.
At the same time, Mohammed was accused by Lebanese officials of placing Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri under house arrest in the Saudi capital after he had made a shocking resignation announcement from there.
The string of arrests and the Hariri case have reflected poorly on the image of Mohammed as a “reformer”.
Change from the throne
He was thrust into the spotlight again in May 2018 when Human Rights Watch said at least 11 women rights activists were arrested, just a month before the ban on women was to be officially lifted.
Another two arrests, including that of Samar Badawi, sister of jailed blogger Raif Badawi, were reported in August.
Some analysts said the women’s arrests were not “surprising” and were in line with Saudi Arabia’s top-down vision – that change only comes from the throne.
Rights groups also said they were concerned about the fate of activist Israa al-Ghomgham, who was detained on charges of inciting protests in mainly Shia areas of the Sunni-ruled kingdom’s Eastern Province.
According to Amnesty International, Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor is seeking the death penalty against her and her husband, and three other rights activists.
Mohammed had sought to cultivate in the West the image of a reformer by reducing the powers of the religious police, and agreeing to the reopening of cinemas, the organisation of concerts and the entry of women into sports stadiums.
But analysts say that although claims that Khashoggi has been killed after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul a week ago remain unconfirmed, if they are true they would seriously damage the prince’s credentials as a reformer.
Turkish police believe Khashoggi was killed by a team of assassins who were sent to Istanbul and departed the same day, according to a Turkish government source.
Riyadh has dismissed the allegations as “baseless”.