Crackdown in Saudi Arabia

The authorities’ ruthless determination to throttle all dissent and disloyalty is likely to backfire


By Abdel Bari Atwan

The detention last week of the well-known reformist Saudi preachers Salman al-Odeh and Awadh al-Qarni did not come as a surprise. It was only to be expected given the current state of political and tribal polarization in the Gulf, and the determination of Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler Crown Prince Muhammad bin-Salman to use an iron fist to consolidate his rule and remove potential obstacles to his planned accession to the throne. He is showing that he is ready and able to throttle any opposition on either count, whether it comes from within the ranks of the so-called sahwa(‘awakening’) clerical movement or even members of the ruling family.

There are conflicting theories about why the two sheikhs, onetime dissidents who made their peace with the regime, were detained. But all concur that in their public comments, they took a more or less neutral stance in the current Gulf crisis and did not overtly take their country’s side in its quarrel with Qatar.  But neutrality is unacceptable in the eyes of the Saudi authorities. They apply an extreme version of George W. Bush’s ‘if you’re not with us you’re against us’ doctrine, and have been putting extreme pressure on writers, journalists and other public figures to denounce Qatar and laud the Saudi-led alliance against it.

Odeh apparently incurred the wrath of the authorities with a tweet welcoming last week’s news that Muhammad Bin-Salman and the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin-Hamad, had spoken on the phone. This appeared to presage a breakthrough in the 100-day-old crisis between the two sides, and the sheikh duly expressed his joy at the prospect of a reconciliation, tweeting: ‘may God bring their hearts together for the benefit of their people.’

Unfortunately for sheikhs Odeh and Qarni, and for other ‘neutral’ clerics and public figures, the telephone conversation that was supposed to open the door to dialogue and the resolution of the quarrel between the two sides had the opposite effect. With each trying to claim the moral high ground and portray the other as having backed down, it triggered a fresh bout of acrimony and recrimination between them.

Pro-regime Saudi tweeters controlled by state agencies then proceeded to launch a vitriolic campaign against the clerics, especially Odeh, and later justified his detention on the grounds that he had been disloyal to the country by failing to support its stance.

Prior to the arrest of the sheikhs, Prince Abdelaziz bin-Fahd, son of former king Fahd, was also detained. He had been similarly non-committal on the Gulf crisis, and was also a fierce critic of Muhammad bin-Zayed — crown prince of Abu Dhabi, de facto ruler f the UAE, and Muhammad bin-Salman’s closest ally, including in the war on Yemen and campaign against Qatar.

Further arrests have followed, with around 20 prominent clerics and other figures – including academics, and economic and poets, not all associated with the sahwa movement — reportedly detained in recent days. Others, including pro-regime journalists, have been banned from writing or using social media.

While not directly acknowledging the latest arrests, the authorities have sought to cast the detainees as foreign-backed saboteurs and link them to Qatar, announcing that a group of people acting on behalf of “external parties against the security of the kingdom” were being held.

The state has also been reiterating warnings against the use of social media to promote “terrorist or extremist ideas”, and reminding Saudis that under the law, “harming the state’s reputation or status” constitutes a “terrorist crime”.

Exiled dissidents have called for peaceful protests to be held throughout Saudi Arabia on Friday against deteriorating living conditions and to press the authorities to tackle poverty, release political prisoners and institute reforms. It remains to be seen whether the latest crackdown will deter would-be protestors or prompt them to turn out in greater numbers despite the repression they will inevitably face.

Either way, Muhammad bin-Salman is displaying a ruthless determination to punish all who fail to show absolute fealty and compliance, or even to actively toe the official line – whatever their standing within the royal family or Saudi society. Having assumed personal control of the main levers of power in the kingdom, he behaves as though he is omnipotent. As in his impulsive and ill-considered regional policies, he thinks he has the power to impose his will on all at home with little regard for the consequences.

But the consequences of such recklessness cannot be guaranteed and may well back-fire, with seriously destabilizing effects for Saudi Arabia and the relationship between rulers and ruled. The current crisis may be the prelude to something much bigger unless urgent measures are taken to contain it – and under the circumstances, no such measures can be expected.