Episode 1, March 2018. A woman gets kidnapped in United Arab Emirates and turned back to Saudi Arabia. She receives a 1,001-day sentence for criticizing a long-time ban on women from receiving Driver’s’ license.
Episode 2, June 2018. Saudi Arabia lifts the ban on female citizens’ right to drive after multiple decades. Women could apply for a driver’s license and enjoy driving as a fresh gift.
Episode 3. The woman finishes her term in jail to face a new ban; Travel bans for her, along with her family, for five more years. She is also barred from speaking in public or making communications.
The new image of Saudi Arabia, for which the crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has shown flexibility in a vast sphere of societal life, is yet to prove a full-fledged democratic representation. It was first in 2017 when MbS provided his audience at the “Future Investment Initiative”, whose 2023 forum ended on Thursday, with the ambition of turning the Middle East to the new Europe. While on the economic and business fronts, the crown prince has made notable achievements, the kingdom is still far away from a democratic state in which any citizen has the right to express him/herself.
On surface, the female society of Saudi Arabia has experienced reforms in their living experiences. From having the right to clothing to active business involvements and even singing and dancing, the Saudi women can present themselves more in social and cultural phenomena. Nonetheless, the glass ceiling over a large group of female citizens has turned thicker with the introduction of fresh regulations.
Saudi women have long suffered from the guardianship policy under which they had no authority over their personal lives and private choices. The shadow of a man as the ultimate decision-maker has had its long reverberations on a female experience. Under the guardianship policy, the female group, comprising a 14.9-million population, are considered other in reference to the male group. The kingdom passed “Personal Status Law” last year, signifying the will to uphold the repression on the female community. The fresh law asserts that women must obey their male guardians, father or husband, as protector. While they are free to travel now, the male guardian can consider it a ‘disobedience’ resulting in tough consequences. A major group of the females who leave the country, hence, have no return ticket.
Repressive measures on citizens, on a wider lens, extends to a larger group of Saudi society. Keeping the Neom mega-project in mind on one side, the kingdom has shown no tolerance towards criticism by citizens in recent years. Few months ago, a retired teacher received a death sentence for denouncing human rights infringement by Saudi leaders. The verdict was so harsh that the media lashed at it as a medieval conduct. A brief survey over the kingdom’s conduct over the past few years, nevertheless, suggests that modern Saudi Arabia has had no hesitation in exerting the absolute power over citizens.
Last year, Saudi Arabia has executed 196 citizens, mostly over verdicts pertaining to criticisms and human rights violations. On March 12, marked as the deadliest mass execution day in the history of the country, 81 citizens were executed. During the first 8-month period of 2023, Saudi Arabia executed 100 people, according to Amnesty International. The crackdown cannot be restricted to death sentences, as a large group of dissidents and activists routinely face jail terms, travel bans, forced exiles, and denial of citizenship rights. In one renowned case, a Leeds University student received 34 years in prison for her activities on X, formerly Twitter.
The recent hostilities in Gaza demonstrated the multi-faceted conduct of Saudi Arabia when it comes to an alternative local view. Traditionally a vocal supporter of Palestinian claims to their lands, Riyadh, on the verge of a historic normalization agreement with Israel, adopted a moderate policy towards both sides of the war. Saudi Foreign minister called for the hostilities to end while Al-Arabiya, the Saudi renowned channel, hosted Khaled Mashal, former Hamas leader, in a hard talk in which Hamas policies and approaches were harshly lambasted.
For a Saudi Arabia which seeks stability to proceed with its ambitious business and economic projects, the approach doesn’t seem weird. Nor was holding multiple global summits and forums since October 7, when the war kicked off in the occupied lands, unexpected. Ever since then, the Kingdom inaugurated the flashy Riyadh Fashion Week with renowned models passing through audience in outfits rarely seen in the Arab nation. Few days later, Bin Salman hosted FIFA president and Cristiano Ronaldo, Al-Nasr famous star, in an event to boost its chance for hosting 2034 World Cup, proposing the world with “Esports World Cup.” The kingdom also proceeded with its annual “Future Investment Initiative” forum hosting titans in banking, investment, and business from across the world.
In line with its novel policies on Palestine, Saudi Arabia has contained all local voices attempting at sympathizing with Palestinian people. While a potential popular uproar over a considerate approach towards Palestine has polished Saudi political positions, holding any protests by Palestinian supporters in Riyadh and elsewhere, in accordance with the overall stratagem on banning protests on any issue, has been restricted. Last week, Al-Hilal, Saudi renowned soccer club, posted a tweet on X, in support for the Palestinian people. The post featured one player in kaffiyeh, a Palestinian sign, around his neck. While receiving massive positive feedback from the audience locally and around the world, the post was removed abruptly. Rushed by the media agents of the government, journalists and activists who made feedbacks to the original post were forced to apologize the public.
Life in Saudi Arabia these days seems way bizarre with one eye looking at the flashy advancements in business, sports, economy, and tourism and the other having to notice the autocratic repressions imposed on society. The kingdom has a long way to go before reaching a state to be compared with modern Europe without the European media having to take the responsibility of exposing the democratic drawbacks of the monarchy. Saudi Arabia under Mohammad bin Salman may be an amalgamation of China under Sun Yat-sen and Iraq under Saddam Hussein.
|The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Al-Sarira.