Under façade of freedom, MBS leads new era of political repression
People in Saudi Arabia are being detained or imprisoned one by one, regardless of their status, and sometimes their names are made public, while other times they vanish without a trace.
While the world's eye is on Saudi Arabia for buying one of the most marketable athletes in the world Cristiano Ronaldo for £175m a year, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman ushers in a new age of extreme tyranny.
An article by The Sunday Times recalled heartwrenching stories, telling the world what life is like under the rule of MBS' repressive regime.
Some will argue that Saudi Arabia has been transformed most notably under the rule of MBS, citing an energetic public relations campaign.
However, this facade is merely partial. When looking at Saudi Arabia today, you must keep two things in mind at the same time. One: MBS has marketed a social and economic change. Second, he has made the country more repressive than it has ever been.
Whispered in Saudi Arabia
King Salman, the Crown Prince's 87-year-old father, nominated him as Prime Minister last year, formalizing his existing influence over the country. Under his de facto leadership, opposition voices in the court, security forces, business, and the royal family have been suppressed – jailed, barred from traveling, and made to hand over significant sums of money to the state.
The report acknowledged that freedom of expression, which has always been constrained, is now non-existent. The Saudi national wealth fund owns a substantial investment in Twitter, which has over 14 million active users in the Kingdom. However, you can be imprisoned for posting anything that criticizes the alleged reforms, including tweeting about the arrests of others.
While the world celebrated lifting the ban on female drivers, female campaigners who had spent years advocating for the change were detained. In prison, several of them were sexually harassed, beaten, and tortured with electric shocks. Some are still being held under house arrest.
Perhaps one of the famous stories of repression is the story of women's rights activist Loujain Al-Hathloul who was kept in solitary confinement for months and subjected to multiple forms of abuse, which include electric shocks, flagellation, and sexual assault, according to rights organizations.
In 2021, Al-Hathloul was released following a detainment that lasted for more than 1,000 days.
Al-Hathloul family members have repeatedly stated that some of the torture sessions took place in presence of Saud Al-Qahtani, a close associate of Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi Crown Prince.
This is not an isolated incident.
Nourah bint Saeed Al-Qahtani
Court records reviewed by a human rights organization show that a Saudi Arabian woman, Nourah bint Saeed Al-Qahtani, has been sentenced to decades in jail for using social media to "violate the public order" by the country's "terrorism court".
In July, a specialized criminal court allegedly found Al-Qahtani guilty of "using the internet to tear [Saudi Arabia's] social fabric" and sentenced her to 45 years in prison as a result, according to documents obtained and examined by Democracy for the Arab World Now (Dawn).
Abdullah Alaoudh, the director for the Gulf region at Dawn, said Saudi authorities appear to have imprisoned Qahtani for “simply tweeting her opinions.”
In August, a 34-year-old mother of two, aged four and six, Salma Al-Shehab was initially sentenced to three years in prison for the "crime" of using an internet website to "cause public unrest and destabilize civil and national security."
Shehab was not a prominent or particularly vocal Saudi activist, neither in Saudi Arabia nor in the United Kingdom.
On Instagram, where she had only 159 followers, she described herself as a dental hygienist, medical educator, Ph.D. student at Leeds University, lecturer at Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman University, wife, and mother to her sons, Noah and Adam.
Her case was not unique. People in Saudi Arabia are being detained or imprisoned one by one, regardless of their status. Sometimes their names are made public, and other times they vanish without a trace.
Saad Ibrahim Almadi
In 2021, the Saudi Kingdom sentenced an American citizen to 16 years in prison for criticizing the Saudi regime in a tweet, in yet another example of the Kingdom's aggressive crackdown on any hint of dissent posted on social media.
Saad Ibrahim Almadi, 72, a dual US-Saudi national, was detained in Riyadh in November 2021 after arriving for a two-week work and personal trip in his own country.
Many are not given a fair trial once they are imprisoned. Torture and sexual abuse have been documented by human rights organizations in Saudi jails. Punishments can be bloody, public, and meant to send shock waves inside and outside the Kingdom.
Despite MBS' promise to end the practice of executions, 12 persons convicted of drug offenses — largely foreigners — were executed by the sword in the weeks leading up to MDLBeast. Amnesty International described it as an "execution spree" when 81 individuals were beheaded on a single day in March 2022 for a variety of offenses. Last year, 138 individuals were executed, more than double the number in 2021.
Under MBS' 2030 vision: Either dismembered or incarcerated
The body of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi remains missing four years after he was assassinated at the Kingdom's consulate in Istanbul by Saudi state agents.
All of the festivals, celebrations, and relaxed social constraints come at a cost: full obedience and loyalty to MBS. Pledge your allegiance to him, and he will defend you. You're in danger if you get him wrong, or even if you're not enthusiastic enough about his transformational endeavor.
MBS' Vision 2030 for the Kingdom includes everything from building a space-age, mirror-sided, road-free, 100-mile-long supercity — the Neom project's The Line, which is still in the planning stages, with its beaches of glow-in-the-dark sand and artificial moon — to increasing household savings among Saudi citizens through financial literacy. The Neom project is putting millions of dollars toward a British concept to gather solar power in orbit and beam it down to Earth using high-frequency radio waves.
However, what bin Salman thinks is his utopia is proving to be closer to a dystopia.
Billions of dollars have been invested in sports to whitewash the bloody acts of the repressive regime. Boxing world title fights, Formula One races, tennis, football, and golf tournaments (as well as the introduction of a professional golf tour to rival America's PGA) have all been conducted in a country that had previously held almost nothing. Saudi Arabia won the bid to host the 2029 Asian Winter Games in a mountainous desert environment where ski slopes will be formed using artificially produced snow last year.
"More repressive than it has ever been"
However, the people in Saudi Arabia tell a different story. In a café in Jeddah on a winter night, a journalist for The Sunday Times met with a prominent Saudi dissident. He was concerned about his safety and asked the journalist not to use his name, even in this city, historically seen as more liberal than Riyadh.
“As we sit here, in about a square mile around us five doctors, three of them medical doctors, have been taken away within the past six months,” he said as quoted by The Sunday Times. Some, he added, had been arrested for old tweets — perhaps for criticizing the reforms. He was looking for a friend, a mother of seven, who disappeared a year and a half ago. No one knows, or at least will tell him, where she is and why she was taken. He has no idea either. The kingdom, he stressed, is more repressive than it has ever been.
“All this progress is a façade as long as there’s no accountability,” he said. “Expression, dialogue, respect for law and order — this is progress. Not dancing and making everything in English … Forget the MDLBeast, it’s all cosmetic,” he tersely stated.
Echoing the repressed voice of Saudis, he went on to say that the Kingdom's social changes are merely window dressing; a technique of courting the West while cracking down on any criticism.
In short, the social compact exists, the treaty has been signed, and anyone who violates it will suffer the wrath of the MBS, the article concluded.
Read next: Bin Salman’s “Cyberweapon”: Not Only Against Saudis