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.
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.
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
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
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
more on Saudi women possibly riding
bicycles and playing
sports in school than on the human rights campaigns.
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."
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
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.
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.
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.
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