Updated: May 26
Research Intern, Internationalism Research
Over a long time, Saudi Arabia was known for two things: oil and Islam. The former was collected under the sands of the kingdom in such vast amounts that it had turned the ruling dynasty, the Al Saud, into one of the wealthiest dynasties in the world, granting the land that bore their name, a geostrategic significance, that would otherwise have been absent. The vast oil wealth had shaped the Saudi economy, bringing considerable wealth to an elite class of princes and businessmen. Most people either stayed home or earned wages from government jobs which paid well and needed little effort.
The official Islam of the kingdom was not any Islam, but Wahhabism, the ultraconservative and intolerant interpretation that was woven into the kingdom’s history. It taught the faithful to be wary of non-Muslim “infidels,” saw murderers and drug dealers beheaded in public squares, and deprived women of basic rights. The kingdom was much more rigid than most other Islamic communities but its position as the protector of the holiest places of Islam, in Mecca and Medina, gave it a special impact over the 1.8 billion Muslims in the world. A comparatively obscure and junior prince before his father's accession to the throne, Mohammed bin Salman (known by his initials MBS) soon became the face of Saudi Arabia's attempts to change the country's economy. He launched Vision 2030 in April 2016, an ambitious government roadmap to economic and developmental growth aimed at reducing the country's dependence on oil.
Reforms or Repressions?
In the years since Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman came to power, many headline-grabbing social reforms — concerts, movie theatres, a lift to the ban on women driving — were incorporated into the ultraconservative monarchy. At an October 2017 investment meeting, Prince Mohammed described the reforms that were happening as a transition to a more open society :
"We are simply going back to what we have been following — a moderate Islam that is open to the world and to all religions," he said.
But at the same time, he had also been heavily criticised for pursuing a war in neighbouring Yemen that had caused a humanitarian catastrophe, starting a diplomatic dispute with Qatar that has divided the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), escalating a crackdown on dissenting voices. There were even calls for him to be replaced as crown prince after the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent critic of the government, was killed by Saudi intelligence agents at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.
Behind the glamour and pomp of Prince Mohammed’s newfound fame abroad and advancements for Saudi women and youth, however, lay a darker reality, as the Saudi authorities moved to sideline anyone who would stand in the way of his political ascension. In the summer of 2017, at the time of his elevation to Crown Prince, officials purged retired police and intelligence officers and secretly reorganized the country's justice and defence system, the key instruments of Saudi control, and put them directly under the command of the royal court. The authorities then conducted a wave of detention drives, targeting hundreds of opponents and possible opponents of Saudi government policies, with the security forces firmly under the royal court’s supervision.
Detaining people for a nonviolent critique of the government's policy or support for human rights is not a recent trend in Saudi Arabia, but what rendered the waves of detention noteworthy and distinct since 2017 is the sheer amount of people arrested in a brief span of time as well as the implementation of modern authoritarian measures not seen under previous Saudi leadership. Authoritarian measures included long term detentions and extorting financial assets of detainees in exchange of their release. Mohammed bin Salman also had the ultimate responsibility for the abusive tactics of Saudi Arabia in its military intervention in Yemen. The coalition headed by Saudi Arabia, which launched combat operations against Houthi forces in Yemen, enforced an aerial and maritime embargo and blocked the movement of life-saving commodities, exacerbating the ongoing humanitarian crisis.