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

    South Sudan Sends First Ever Official Olympic Team to Rio

    VOA caught up with Santino Kenyi, 16, one of three athletes who will compete in this year's summer games in Brazil

    Arrest of Malawi's 'Hyena' Man Highlights Clash of Ritual, Health and Women's Rights

    Ritual practice of deflowering young girls is blamed for spreading deadly AIDS virus

    Immigrant Delegate Marvels at Democratic Process

    VOA finds things Americans take for granted are special to foreigners

    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.
    Immigrant Delegate Marvels at Democratic Processi
    X
    Katherine Gypson
    July 27, 2016 6:21 PM
    It’s been a bitter and divisive election season – but first time Indian-American delegate Dr. Shashi Gupta headed to the Democratic National Convention with a sense of hope. VOA’s Katherine Gypson followed this immigrant with the love of U.S. politics all the way to Philadelphia.
    Video

    Video Immigrant Delegate Marvels at Democratic Process

    It’s been a bitter and divisive election season – but first time Indian-American delegate Dr. Shashi Gupta headed to the Democratic National Convention with a sense of hope. VOA’s Katherine Gypson followed this immigrant with the love of U.S. politics all the way to Philadelphia.
    Video

    Video A Life of Fighting Back: Hillary Clinton Shatters Glass Ceiling

    Hillary Clinton made history Thursday, overcoming personal and political setbacks to become the first woman to win the presidential nomination of a major U.S. political party. If she wins in November, she will go from “first lady” to U.S. Senator from New York, to Secretary of State, to “Madam President.” Polls show Clinton is both beloved and despised. White House Correspondent Cindy Saine takes a look at the life of the woman both supporters and detractors agree is a fighter for the ages.
    Video

    Video Dutch Entrepreneurs Turn Rainwater Into Beer

    June has been recorded as one of the wettest months in more than a century in many parts of Europe. To a group of entrepreneurs in Amsterdam the rain came as a blessing, as they used the extra water to brew beer. Serginho Roosblad has more to the story.
    Video

    Video First Time Delegate’s First Day Frustrations

    With thousands of people filling the streets of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for the 2016 Democratic National Convention, VOA’s Kane Farabaugh narrowed in on one delegate as she made her first trip to a national party convention. It was a day that was anything but routine for this United States military veteran.
    Video

    Video Commerce Thrives on US-Mexico Border

    At the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia this week, the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, is expected to attack proposals made by her opponent, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Last Friday, President Barack Obama hosted his Mexican counterpart, President Enrique Peña Nieto, to underscore the good relations between the two countries. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Tucson.
    Video

    Video Film Helps Save Ethiopian Children Thought to be Cursed

    'Omo Child' looks at effort of African man to stop killings of ‘mingi’ children
    Video

    Video London’s Financial Crown at Risk as Rivals Eye Brexit Opportunities

    By most measures, London rivals New York as the only true global financial center. But Britain’s vote to leave the European Union – so-called ‘Brexit’ – means the city could lose its right to sell services tariff-free across the bloc, risking its position as Europe’s financial headquarters. Already some banks have said they may shift operations to the mainland. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
    Video

    Video Recycling Lifeline for Lebanon’s Last Glassblowers

    In a small Lebanese coastal town, one family is preserving a craft that stretches back millennia. The art of glass blowing was developed by Phoenicians in the region, and the Khalifehs say they are the only ones keeping the skill alive in Lebanon. But despite teaming up with an eco-entrepreneur and receiving an unexpected boost from the country’s recent trash crisis the future remains uncertain. John Owens reports from Sarafand.
    Video

    Video Migrants Continue to Risk Lives Crossing US Border from Mexico

    In his speech Thursday before the Republican National Convention, the party’s presidential candidate, Donald Trump, reiterated his proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border if elected. Polls show a large percentage of Americans support better control of the nation's southwestern border, but as VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from the border town of Nogales in the Mexican state of Sonora, the situation faced by people trying to cross the border is already daunting.
    Video

    Video In State of Emergency, Turkey’s Erdogan Focuses on Spiritual Movement

    The state of emergency that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared is giving him even more power to expand a purge that has seen an estimated 60,000 people either arrested or suspended from their jobs. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports from Istanbul.
    Video

    Video Calm the Waters: US Doubles Down Diplomatic Efforts in ASEAN Meetings

    The United States is redoubling diplomatic efforts and looking to upcoming regional meetings to calm the waters after an international tribunal invalidated the legal basis of Beijing's extensive claims in the South China Sea. VOA State Department correspondent Nike Ching has the story.
    Video

    Video Scientists in Poland Race to Save Honeybees

    Honeybees are in danger worldwide. Causes of what's known as colony collapse disorder range from pesticides and loss of habitat to infections. But scientists in Poland say they are on track to finding a cure for one of the diseases. VOA’s George Putic reports.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora