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

Lesotho Faces New Round of Violence, Political Crisis

Brutal killing of military officer has sent former leaders back into S. Africa where they're watching anxiously as regional officials head in to try to restore peace More

Video US Diplomat Expects Adoption of Srebrenica Anniversary Resolution

Samantha Power says there's broad consensus about killings in Bosnia's war, but Russia calls resolution 'divisive,' backs countermeasure at UN More

UN Report Exposes Widespread Boko Haram Atrocities

Damning report graphically details pattern of vicious, widespread atrocities committed by Islamist militants More

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.
Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prisoni
X
Heather Murdock
July 01, 2015 8:59 PM
As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video US Silica Sand Mining Surge Worries Illinois Residents, Businesses

Increased domestic U.S. oil and gas production, thanks to advances known as “fracking,” has created a boom for other industries supporting that extraction. Demand for silica sand, used in fracking, could triple over the next five years. In the Midwest state of Illinois, people living near the mines are worried about how increased silica sand mining will affect their businesses and their health. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more in this first of a series of reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Nubians in Kenya Face Land Challenges

East Africa's ethnic Nubians have a rich cultural history that dates back thousands of years, but in Kenya they are facing hardships, including the loss of lands they have lived on for generations. They say the government has reneged on its pledge to award them title deeds for the plots. VOA's Lenny Ruvaga reports.
Video

Video Military Experts Question New Russian Tank Capabilities

Russia has been showing off its new tank design – the Armata T-14. Designers claim it is 20 years ahead of current Western designs - and driving it feels like playing a computer game. But military analysts question those assertions, and warn the cost could be too heavy a burden for Russia’s struggling economy. Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.

VOA Blogs