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.
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.


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

Video In US, Columbus Day Still Generates Controversy

Holiday marks date Columbus discovered Americas, but some are offended by legacy because he enslaved many natives he encountered More

Video Through Sports, Austria Tries to Give Migrants Traction

With 85,000 people expected to claim asylum in Austria this year, its government has made integration through joint physical activities a key objective More

Video Kickboxing Champion Shares Sport With Young Migrants

Pouring into Europe by hundreds of thousands, some migrants, especially youngsters, are finding sports a way to integrate into new host countries More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
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.

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.
Amnesty Accuses Saudi Coalition of ‘War Crimes’ in Yemeni
Henry Ridgwell
October 12, 2015 4:03 PM
The human rights group Amnesty International has accused the Saudi-led coalition of war crimes in airstrikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen. Henry Ridgwell reports the group says hundreds of civilians have been killed in strikes on residential areas.

Video Amnesty Accuses Saudi Coalition of ‘War Crimes’ in Yemen

The human rights group Amnesty International has accused the Saudi-led coalition of war crimes in airstrikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen. Henry Ridgwell reports the group says hundreds of civilians have been killed in strikes on residential areas.

Video No Resolution in Sight to US House Speaker Drama

Uncertainty grips the U.S. Congress, where no consensus replacement has emerged to succeed Republican House Speaker John Boehner after his surprise resignation announcement. Half of Congress is effectively leaderless weeks before America risks defaulting on its national debt and enduring another partial government shutdown.

Video New Art Exhibit Focuses on Hope

Out of struggle and despair often comes hope. That idea is behind a new art exhibit at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. "The Big Hope Show" features 25 artists, some of whom overcame trauma and loss. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Columbus Day Still Generates Controversy as US Holiday

The second Monday of October is Columbus Day in the United States, honoring explorer Christopher Columbus and his discovery of the Americas. The achievement is a source of pride for many, but for some the holiday is marked by controversy. Adrianna Zhang has more.

Video Anger Simmers as Turks Begin to Bury Blast Victims

The Turkish army carried out new air strikes on Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) targets on Sunday, a day after the banned group announced a unilateral cease fire. The air raids apparently are in retaliation for the Saturday bombing in Turkey's capital Ankara that killed at least 95 people and wounded more than 200 others. But as Zlatica Hoke reports, there are suspicions that Islamic State is involved.

Video Bombings a Sign of Turkey’s Deep Troubles

Turkey has begun a three-day period of mourning following Saturday’s bomb attacks in the capital, Ankara, that killed nearly 100 people. With contentious parliamentary elections three weeks away, the attacks highlight the challenges Turkey is facing as it struggles with ethnic friction, an ongoing migrant crisis, and growing tensions with Russia. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video Afghanistan’s Progress Aided by US Academic Center

Recent combat in Afghanistan has shifted world attention back to the central Asian nation’s continuing civil war and economic challenges. But, while there are many vexing problems facing Afghanistan’s government and people, a group of academics in Omaha, Nebraska has kept a strong faith in the nation’s future through programs to improve education. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from Omaha, Nebraska.

Video House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdraws

The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video German, US Officials Investigate Volkswagen

German officials have taken steps to restore some of the reputation their car industry has lost after a recent Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal. Authorities have searched Volkswagen headquarters and other locations in an effort to identify the culprits in the creation of software that helps cheat on emission tests. Meanwhile, a group of lawmakers in Washington held a hearing to get to the bottom of the cheating strategy that was first discovered in the United States. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Why Are Gun Laws So Hard for Congress to Tackle?

Since taking office, President Barack Obama has spoken out or issued statements about 15 mass shootings. The most recent shooting, in which 10 people were killed at a community college, sparked outrage over the nation's gun laws. But changing those laws isn't as easy as many think. VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports.

Video In 'He Named Me Malala,' Guggenheim Finds Normal in Extraordinary

Davis Guggenheim’s documentary "He Named Me Malala" offers a probing look into the life of 18-year-old Malala Yousafsai, the Pakistani teenager who, in 2012, was shot in the head by the Taliban for standing up for her right to education in her hometown in Pakistan's Swat Valley. Guggenheim shows how, since then, Malala has become a symbol not as a victim of brutal violence, but as an advocate for girls’ education throughout the world. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.

Video Paintable Solar Cells May Someday Replace Silicon-Based Panels

Solar panels today are still factory-manufactured, with the use of some highly toxic substances such as cadmium chloride. But a researcher at St. Mary’s College, Maryland, says we are close to being able to create solar panels by painting them on a suitable surface, using nontoxic solutions. VOA’s George Putic reports.

VOA Blogs