News / Middle East

    Saudi Arabia Tightens Curbs on Dissent Over Stability Concerns

    FILE - A veiled Saudi waitress (R) speaks to visitors at a coffee shop in Tabuk, 1,500 kilometers from Riyadh.
    FILE - A veiled Saudi waitress (R) speaks to visitors at a coffee shop in Tabuk, 1,500 kilometers from Riyadh.
    Reuters
    Saudi Arabia, rattled by regional turmoil that has destabilized the Middle East, is intensifying a crackdown on domestic dissent, raising fears that a more open space for public debate that emerged in recent years is under threat.

    Sunni Islamists, Shi'ite Muslims, liberal reformers, atheists and human rights advocates have all been targeted through a series of arrests and new laws in what one activist has described as an “undeclared state of emergency.”

    Social media, and what analysts describe as King Abdullah's efforts to foster a more open atmosphere since the turn of the century, have given Saudis greater scope than ever before to criticize the authorities and discuss topics once seen as taboo.

    Since the 2011 Arab uprisings, however, the world's No. 1 oil exporter has taken a far harsher line against many forms of dissent, jailing liberal reformers and religious critics on charges ranging from sedition to jeopardizing state security.

    Riyadh's long-ruling dynasty remains firmly in control of the country, where only small-scale demonstrations to push for the release of jailed Sunni militants or liberal activists or by Shi'ites in the Eastern Province occur from time to time.

    It believes it is under attack as never before, though, according to analysts with close ties to the kingdom's elite, and it sees Syria's civil war and Egypt's political crisis as posing a domestic threat as well as a foreign policy challenge.

    Responding to these perceived threats, Saudi Arabia has passed a set of laws that banned citizens from fighting abroad, donating money to any faction in Syria or sympathizing with militant ideologies.

    Meanwhile, a new law defines terrorist crimes as any act that “disturbs public order, shakes the security of society, or subjects its national unity to danger, or obstructs the primary system of rule or harms the reputation of the state”.

    “There is a clear lowering of the ceiling of liberties, a rise in security repression and an increase in legislation of laws that can be used to criminalize political activists,” a rights campaigner, who asked not to be identified said.

    The kingdom says it does not have political prisoners and does not practice torture, while top officials have defended monitoring of activists as necessary to maintain social stability.

    “We don't want things to influence our unity. So if something is going to make our society unstable or disunite our society, we will pay a lot of attention to it,” said a senior Interior Ministry official interviewed by Reuters in February.

    Little room for dissent

    The new laws have made it easier for the government to punish Saudis for any expressions of criticism or dissent, not only in public gatherings and traditional media, but also on social media.

    In doing so, it appears to be reacting to both regional political turbulence and the surge of public debate unleashed by Twitter and YouTube.

    Political parties are banned in the kingdom as are protests, labor unions are illegal, the press is tightly controlled and criticism of the royal family can lead to prison.

    However, the king has encouraged reforms aimed at making Saudi society more open to outside influences and encouraged local press to push harder for change, according to local newspaper editors cited by U.S. diplomats in cables released by WikiLeaks.

    At the same time, social media has allowed Saudis to push the boundaries of public debate, opening the way for widespread criticism of specific officials and policies in ways that would have been unimaginable a decade ago.

    Now, the government has introduced a series of regulations requiring licensing of news websites and threatening punitive imprisonment for dissent on social media.

    Earlier this month, three young men from prominent Saudi families were detained for posting online films complaining about living standards and criticizing the royal family, said an activist who spoke with relatives.

    The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists has ranked Saudi Arabia among the world's 10 most censored countries, together with Syria, Eritrea and North Korea.

    Islamists from the kingdom's conservative Sunni majority are the main focus of government unease, most clearly via a decree that branded the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, but also with moves against specific figures seen as a threat.

    Wajdi al-Ghazzawi, the Saudi host of Wajd television station based in Cairo, was convicted last year of “harming the nation's image” with programming that was “liable to impact on public security”.

    Liberal threat

    Authorities also have targeted those who appear to deviate from orthodox Sunni belief, however, by making atheism a “terrorist” offense and imposing harsh sentences for people it said have blasphemed on social media.

    Government officials have also used harsh language about liberals, as the Islamic Affairs Minister Sheik Saleh bin Abdulaziz Al al-Sheik did in comments to al-Hayat newspaper this month. He described “Western liberal trends, Islamist movement trends and non-Islamist ones threatening the country”.

    In October, authorities detained columnist Tareq al-Mubarak for several days after he published an opinion piece criticizing the driving ban and other restrictions on women.

    One Saudi official said privately that Mubarak had “crossed a line by trying to organize dissent”.

    A group of activists imprisoned over the past year after founding the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA) angered the government by publicizing their demands for a constitutional monarchy and accusations about senior figures.

    Mohammed Fahd al-Qahtani and Abdullah Hamid were sentenced to 10 and 11 years in jail on charges that included sedition and giving inaccurate information to foreign media. A relative of one of them said they were now on hunger strike, which the government denied was happening.

    “The tightening is ... on all political activists demanding reform and popular participation in the political decision making process,” the activist said. He said ACPRA was the most “daring” Saudi group in demanding reforms.

    Even Riyadh's annual book fair did not escape. Publishers said authorities ordered the withdrawal of more than 400 titles from the display, including works by prominent authors like Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish and Iraqi poets Bader Shaker al-Sayyab and Aabdel-Wahhab al-Bayati.

    Anxiety

    Amplifying Saudi worries about Syria and Egypt, the kingdom's rulers feel surrounded by chaos: Iraq is still torn by sectarian violence while political turmoil casts a shadow over two of the kingdom's other neighbors, Yemen and Bahrain.

    “The authorities believe they are in control inside Saudi Arabia, more or less, but they are not sure about the outside impact on Saudi Arabia in the near future,” said Mustafa Alani, a security analyst with close ties to the Interior Ministry.

    They fear the return of possibly hundreds of hardened militants who have fought in Syria's civil war, remembering attacks from 2003-06 launched by radical Islamists who had taken part in the insurgency in Iraq.

    “I think the worry about Syria is more reflected in the recent bit of legislation that mandate prison terms for Saudis who join fights abroad,” said Gregory Gause, an associate fellow at the Doha Brookings think-tank.

    “I think that's a direct response to the increasing flow back from Syria into Saudi Arabia. But of course that's a movie we've seen before from Afghanistan, from Iraq.”

    Saudi leaders also fear that domestic expressions of support for the Muslim Brotherhood could complicate their policy in Egypt, their most important Arab ally against a common main rival, Shi'ite Iran, Gause said.

    Such concerns have given added weight to domestic criticism over a lack of jobs, housing shortages and government corruption, as well as social debates as to whether the kingdom is moving too quickly towards adopting Western values.

    But Ibrahim al-Mugaiteeb, head of the local Human Rights First Society, said security steps were not the answer to dissidents.

    “We need more than harshness and roughness as we have noticed recently in the sentencing,” he told Reuters.

    Instead, he said, the government should regard criticism as constructive and that he hoped the authorities would push reforms at a faster pace.

    “We need more understanding for where people are coming from,” Mugaiteeb said.

    You May Like

    Mother of IS Supporter: Son Was Peaceful, 'Role Model'

    Somali-American Abdirizak Mohamed Warsame pleaded guilty Thursday to charges of conspiring to provide material support to Islamic State militants

    Factions Shift as Civilians Die in Syrian War

    Scenario likely only to further confuse military situation on ground and potentially worsen humanitarian crisis that already has grown to epic proportions

    Presidential Hopefuls Woo Minorities, Evangelicals

    Four GOP candidates to speak at forum at Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina

    This forum has been closed.
    Comment Sorting
    Comments
         
    by: M. from: Saudi Arabia
    April 15, 2014 11:07 PM
    that is true. there is a growing instability here very bad. there is constant incitement by Iran. the future here looks very bad.

    by: MUSTAFA from: INDIA
    April 15, 2014 10:51 PM
    Saudis are living life in suffocated atmosphere.There is no freedom in press,no freedom of other faith of religion except Wahabi Islam in SA. There is no free TV Channels,no body has any power to ask royal family about expenditure against billions of oil income. There is strong perception that oil income is not going to masses and only Royal Family have right to enjoy their life with oil income with on accountability. If some body ask any question to Royal Family about country affairs or mismanagement in finance,he or she will go behind bar. SA did not give power to woman to drive car or even go to grave yard for their family members. I been to Saudia and UAE for business trips, both country are islamic but I saw a big difference in interpretation of Islam in SA and UAE. How is it possible that in UAE girls can drive car and go for family funeral in grave yard but in Saudi Islam all these things prohibit in Islam. I feel fresh air in UAE and every body is saisfy but when I was in SA, even local and expatriate have lot of complain about freedom and justise system in SA.

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Two-thirds of World Faces Water Shortagei
    X
    February 12, 2016 7:31 PM
    Four billion people — or two out of every three on the planet — do not have enough water to meet their basic needs. That is far greater than previously thought, according to a new study that presents a more accurate picture of the problem. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, the findings will help policymakers and the public craft solutions to address the threat.
    Video

    Video Two-thirds of World Faces Water Shortage

    Four billion people — or two out of every three on the planet — do not have enough water to meet their basic needs. That is far greater than previously thought, according to a new study that presents a more accurate picture of the problem. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, the findings will help policymakers and the public craft solutions to address the threat.
    Video

    Video Gateway to Mecca: Historical Old Jeddah

    Local leader Sami Nawar's family has been in the Old City of Jeddah for hundreds of years and takes us on a tour of this ancient route to Mecca, also believed to be the final resting place of Adam's wife, Eve.
    Video

    Video New Technology Aims to Bring Election Transparency to Uganda

    A team of recent graduates from Uganda’s Makerere University has created a mobile application designed to help monitor elections and expose possible rigging. The developers say the app, called E-Poll, will make Uganda's democratic process fairer. From Kampala, VOA's Serginho Roosblad reports.
    Video

    Video As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Fill

    Aid workers on the Greek island of Lesbos say they are struggling to bury the increasing number of bodies of refugees that have been recovered or washed up ashore in recent months.  The graveyards are all full, they say, yet as tens of thousands of people clamor to get out of Syria, it is clear refugees will still be coming in record numbers. For VOA, Hamada Elrasam reports from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video Russia Bristles at NATO Expansion in E. Europe

    Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is meeting Friday with the head of NATO after the Western military alliance and the United States announced plans for the biggest military build-up in Europe since the Cold War. Russia has called NATO's moves a threat to stability in Europe. But NATO says the troop rotations and equipment are aimed at reassuring allies concerned about Russia as VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video To Fight Zika, Scientists Target Mosquitoes

    Mosquitoes strike again. The Zika virus outbreak is just the latest headline-grabbing epidemic carried by these biting pests, but researchers are fighting back with new ways to control them. VOA's Steve Baragona takes a look.
    Video

    Video Mosul Refugees Talk About Life Under IS

    A top U.S. intelligence official told Congress this week that a planned Iraqi-led operation to re-take the city of Mosul from Islamic State militants is unlikely to take place this year. IS took over the city in June 2014, and for the past year and a half, Mosul residents have been held captive under its rule. VOA's Zana Omar talked to some families who managed to escape. Bronwyn Benito narrates his report.
    Video

    Video Scientists Make Progress Toward Better Diabetes Treatment, Cure

    Scientists at two of the top U.S. universities say they have made significant advances in their quest to find a more efficient treatment for diabetes and eventually a cure. According to the International Diabetes Federation, the disease affects more than 370 million people worldwide. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video NATO to Target Migrant Smugglers

    NATO has announced plans to send warships to the Aegean Sea to target migrant smugglers in the alliance's most direct intervention so far since a wave of people began trying to reach European shores.
    Video

    Video Russia's Catholics, Orthodox Hopeful on Historic Pope-Patriarch Meeting

    Russia's Catholic minority has welcomed an historic first meeting Friday in Cuba between the Pope and the Patriarch of Russia's dominant Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church split with Rome in 1054 and analysts say politics, both church and state, have been driving the relationship in the centuries since. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video Used Books Get a New Life on the Streets of Lagos

    Used booksellers are importing books from abroad and selling them on the streets of Africa's largest city. What‘s popular with readers may surprise you. Chris Stein reports from Lagos.
    Video

    Video After NH Primaries All Eyes on South Carolina

    After Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire, US presidential candidates swiftly turned to the next election coming up in South Carolina. The so-called “first-in-the-South” poll may help further narrow down the field of candidates. Zlatica Hoke reports.
    Video

    Video Smartphone Helps Grow Vegetables

    One day, you may be using your smartphone to grow your vegetables. A Taipei-based company has developed a farm cube — a small, enclosed ecosystem designed to grow plants indoors. The environment inside is automatically adjusted by the cube, but it can also be controlled through an app. VOA's Deborah Block has more on the gardening system.
    Video

    Video Exhibit Turns da Vinci’s Drawings Into Real Objects

    In addition to being a successful artist, Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci designed many practical machines, some of which are still in use today, although in different forms. But a number of his projects were never realized — until today. VOA’s George Putic reports.