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Silencing of Critics Threatens to Undermine Saudi Reform Efforts

Varsha Koduvayur
5th October 2018 - FDD Policy Brief

Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi journalist known for his criticisms of the Saudi government and the crown prince, disappeared Tuesday after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. With still no contact from him, his friends and fiancée fear the worst.

A day earlier, the Saudi public prosecutor charged economist Essam Zamil with terrorism offenses over tweets that criticized the government’s plans to float state oil company Aramco. These drastic actions against peaceful critics of Saudi policy cast further doubt upon the trajectory of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reform agenda. 

Such developments have become increasingly commonplace in the last year. At least three waves of arbitrary detentions have occurred: against writers and clerics in September 2017, businessmen and royals in November 2017, and women’s rights activists in May 2018. Authorities described the November wave as an attempt to root out corruption, but gave no such compelling logic for the other two roundups. Moreover, several new arrests have occurred since May, indicating that the kingdom’s crackdown against dissenters is not over. 

Khashoggi’s possible detention by Saudi authorities also highlights what could be a particularly troubling development: The government now appears to be targeting critics living not only at home but also abroad. Khashoggi had been in self-imposed exile in the United States since last year. 

Similarly, according to a recent Haaretz report, agents connected to the Saudi regime used Israeli-made spyware to snoop on Omar Abdulaziz, another Saudi exile living in Canada. Ghanem al Dosari, a UK-based human rights activist and host of a satirical show about the kingdom on YouTube, said his YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook pages had all been hacked by government agents. (Dosari himself was attacked last month in London by two men shouting pro-Saudi sentiments and insulting him as a “slave of Qatar,” though no direct link has been established between them and the Saudi government.) 

These actions and others – including a decision to criminalize online satire that “disrupts public order” – threaten Western support that will be crucial to the success of Mohammed bin Salman’s ambitious reform agenda. Dubbed Vision 2030, the reform blueprint promises a future free of oil dependency, a robust private sector that would slash Saudi unemployment, and social reforms that would ease harsh cultural restrictions for the new generation. To his credit, the crown prince has done the unthinkable and delivered on some of those promises – the ban against cinemas was overturned, women won the right to drive, and the kingdom is tackling the scourge of radical Islam more openly and aggressively. 

But Saudi Arabia’s apparent campaign against moderate critics and activists threatens to upend that progress. If Riyadh’s goal is really to create “a vibrant society,” as Vision 2030 states, arresting and silencing peaceful dissent will have the opposite effect. Moreover, the lack of transparency and due process surrounding the latest arrests undercuts Riyadh’s ambition of building “a thriving economy.” Direct investment has plummeted while capital flight has soared, as the political risks stemming from these purges spook both Saudi and foreign investors from investing in the kingdom. 

Riyadh should realize that efforts to stifle even mild criticism threaten the benefits gained from any economic or social opening. Western policymakers and investors will only get further spooked by its mixed messaging and seemingly contradictory aims. 

Varsha Koduvayur is a senior research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where she focuses on the Gulf. Follow her on Twitter @varshakoduvayur.

Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

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