On March 11, Saudi lawyer Abd al-Aziz al-Hussan went to see his clients Mohammed Fahd al-Qahtani and Abdullah al-Hamed, two of the kingdom's most prominent human rights activists, in prison. He tweeted that he found them in handcuffs, and prison officials were unwilling to remove them. Saudi authorities denied that the defendants had been shackled, though other witnesses supported Hussan's account.
The Saudi government didn't appreciate Hussan drawing attention to his clients' case. In less than 24 hours, the 32-year-old American-educated lawyer found himself the target of the same crackdown that had claimed his clients. He was summoned for interrogation over his tweets, targeted by pro-government media, and his license to practice law was challenged by the Ministry of Justice.
While Saudi activists have tried to rally to Hussan's side, his case has received virtually no international attention. This is in rather stark contrast to the unusual and constructive attention paid to the struggles of Saudi human rights activists early this year, when Qahtani and Hamed were profiled by the Washington Post, CNN, and Foreign Policy (by me). Even that attention, however, has not been enough: On March 9, Qahtani was sentenced to 10 years in prison and Hamed to five years for their political activities.
It didn't help that the United States never stood up for Qahtani and Hamed's rights. The State Department spokesperson expressed generic concern in response to a question, but neither Secretary of State John Kerry nor Attorney General Eric Holder had anything significant to say in public during their visits to Saudi Arabia, which took place around the time of the sentencing. The issues of Saudi human rights has now largely disappeared from the international agenda -- since March, the media has focused more on Saudi women possibly riding bicycles and playing sports in school than on the human rights campaigns.
This represents a stark turnaround from the beginning of the year, when reformers seemed to have some momentum on their side. Back then, Qahtani's Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA) was pursuing a novel strategy of challenging the government in the courts. The rapid growth of Twitter marked the unprecedented emergence of an independent Saudi public sphere, highlighting a wide range of dissenting views and undermining official efforts to control the terms of debate. Protests and clashes in the Shia-dominated Eastern Province continued -- and even more worryingly for the regime, demonstrations stirred in Sunni areas such as Burayda and Riyadh. And in March, popular Islamist cleric Salman al-Odeh published a scathing open letter warning the regime that "people here, like people around the world, have demands, longings and rights, and they will not remain silent forever when they are denied all or some of them."
Hussan is currently in the United States, where he is planning to take a temporary academic appointment. During a conversation in Washington this week, Hussan emphasized that this was not just a personal matter. He told me that his case was part of a broader crackdown on human rights activists, lawyers, and reformers. Since the sentencing of Qahtani and Hamed in March, he argued, the Saudi regime has been on the offensive against human rights activists and Sunni protesters. Activists and lawyers such as Fawzan al-Harbi and Abdulkarim al-Khoder have been harassed and interrogated, and security forces have arrested hundreds of demonstrators, holding many of them for weeks without access to lawyers. The Saudi government also appears determined to explore the possibilities for monitoring and controlling social media, particularly Twitter.
As a result, a bit of the wind has gone out of the sails of the protests. The regime appears emboldened by the limited response to the wave of arrests from both the international community and the Saudi street. Qahtani and Hamed's detention, he pointed out, produced no equivalent of the massive mobilization in Kuwait over the arrest of the opposition politician Musallam al-Barrak. Nor has it received much mention in the international media since the verdicts.
But Hussan, like many Saudi reformers, thinks that the regime's sense of control is an illusion. Even if a revolution isn't on the immediate horizon, it would be dangerous to assume that Saudi Arabia will forever be a "Kingdom of No Surprises." The anger now being vented on Twitter represents the very real frustration of a broad cross-section of Saudi society, which finds few formal channels to express their concerns. The weakness of civil society may seem like an advantage for the regime -- but it could also make it more difficult to sustain a disciplined, non-violent protest movement during the inevitable coming rounds of popular contention.
There are so far precious few openly revolutionary voices in Saudi Arabia. Most Saudi human rights and civil society campaigners insist they only want reforms that enhance transparency, accountability, and the rule of law, not regime change. But Bahrain should be a sobering reminder of what could follow from the repression of such moderates.
Riyadh should be reaching out to these reformists instead of imprisoning, interrogating, harassing them, or driving them abroad. A stable political system should be able to find the space for reformists to engage without fear of reprisal, and should welcome nonviolent appeals for transparency and accountability. The Saudi authorities could see the growth of Twitter as a positive sign -- a potentially constructive open space for debating the kingdom's problems and developing a sense of civic participation. But like too many of the Gulf regimes, it seems intent on silencing dissent, playing on sectarian divisions, and taking advantage of international indifference toward its domestic behavior.
The United States is doing its ally no favors by enabling such behavior. It should be far more forceful about pushing Saudi Arabia publicly on human rights issues. Washington may convince itself that now is not the time to rock the boat: U.S. officials no doubt feel that they have more than enough problems in the region to deal with at the moment, and there is little prospect of significant political change in the next few years. That's usually how the argument goes -- but such caution would be a mistake.
The transformation of Arab political culture and the relentless expansion of public contention is not going to fade any time soon. At a minimum, Washington should more effectively support the opening of political space for reformist voices in Saudi Arabia and all of its regional allies. Pushing for such reform is crucial for reshaping America's engagement with the region, not an irritating distraction from the real issues. International attention, particularly from the United States, could make a difference at a critical time in Saudi political development. Better to do so now than to wait until the next crisis.