Operation imprecision

Welcome to the latest edition of Riyadh Bureau, a newsletter for people interested in Saudi Arabia — written by me, Ahmed Al Omran. If you are not a subscriber, please use the button below to subscribe. Send your feedback to alomran@gmail.com or via Twitter: @ahmed

Solid and fluid

When the United Arab Emirates pulled most of its forces from Yemen last month, Abu Dhabi insisted that the move was coordinated with coalition leader Saudi Arabia as part of the plan to implement the Stockholm Agreement brokered by the United Nations earlier this year:

The UAE is redeploying its forces in Hodeidah, Yemen with the agreement of Saudi Arabia, its Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said Friday.

The redeployment is the outcome of extensive dialogue with the Arab coalition, and the country has agreed on a strategy for the next phase in Yemen with Saudi Arabia, Gargash said.

He added that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are determined to avoid confrontation with Iran, and that the relationship between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi is “solid and lasting.”

The chaos that has ensued in Aden following the Emirati withdrawal not only brought that coordination into question but also appeared to reveal cracks in the KSA-UAE alliance that was seemingly impenetrable since the coalition launched its military campaign in Yemen back in 2015.

Yemen’s government led by Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi accused the UAE of supporting separatists and demanded its expulsion explosion from the coalition while Saudi and Emirati pundits exchanged harsh accusations and criticism on Twitter as tensions rose in Southern Yemen between groups backed by the two sides.

This has prompted Saudi Arabia and UAE to come out with a joint statement reaffirming their commitment to Yemen and “denouncing the smear campaign against the UAE over the recent events”:

The governments of both countries express their rejection and condemnation of the accusations and defamation campaigns targeting the UAE due to those events; reminding everyone of the sacrifices made by the Coalition Forces in Yemen, motivated by sincere fraternal and neighbourly ties, the preservation of security in the region, and the prosperity of its people and their common destiny.

While the heated Twitter exchanges relatively cooled down, the situation on the ground remains fluid after the Yemeni government on Thursday accused the UAE of killing dozens of its troops in airstrikes. The UAE said in a statement that its “precision air operations” were in response to “armed groups affiliated with terrorist militias targeting coalition forces at Aden Airport.”

Reuters reported that the Saudi king took the unusual step of expressing “extreme irritation” with the UAE at his palace in Mecca earlier this month, but the Emiratis have their reasons for attempting to put some distance between them and their larger neighbour. They have invested a lot of time and money to build their reputation in Washington as a reliable ally, and they realised that their closeness to the kingdom was damaging that image, particularly after the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.

Former Saudi ambassador to the US Prince Khalid bin Salman, currently deputy defence minister, was back in Washington this week for talks as the Wall Street Journal reported that the the Trump administration is preparing to open direct talks with the Iran-backed Houthis and pushing the kingdom to take part in secret negotiations in Oman.

Peaks and roller coasters

Despite the situation on the Yemen border, Saudi Arabia has continued to push its programme to promote local entertainment and tourism, including a festival at the southwestern region of Assir even as Houthis continued to target Abha airport with drone attacks that have become almost a daily occurrence

Al-Soudah Season, named after a peak of 3000m above sea level, has taken place during the month of August to take benefit of the nice summer weather there compared with other parts of the kingdom, and featured music concerts by famous Arab singers, open-air cinema and extreme sports events. 

American amusement park operator Six Flags announced that it would build 12 roller coasters and 6 themed areas covering 79 acres of land as part of the Qiddiya entertainment project outside the capital Riyadh. The park is expected to generate 800 full-time jobs when it opens in early 2023, officials said.

Next month should be relatively quiet except for celebrations around Saudi National Day on September 23, but in the meantime we have seen the government’s decision to allow women to travel without permission from their male guardian coming into effect, with local media reporting that thousands of women are taking advantage of the latest change in rules.

However, there have been complaints in the early days that the e-government system still did not allow women to obtain passports online despite the change in law. A spokesman said women must visit passport offices until the system is updated to reflect the recent amendments.

Giving women the freedom to travel will have a positive impact on the lives of many women, even if the change could lead to tension in some families. International human rights groups welcomed the implementation but urged the kingdom to follow it up by releasing detained women’s rights activists:

If Saudi Arabia wants to show the world it is truly serious about improving the rights of women, the authorities must drop all charges against the defenders of women’s rights who have been crucial in pushing for these kinds of reforms through their activism. They must immediately and unconditionally release all those who are in detention for fighting for these most basic of rights.

The family of Loujain al-Hathloul said she has rejected a proposal to be released from prison in exchange for recording a video statement denying reports she was tortured in custody.

“Our initial agreement with the State Security was that she will sign the document in which she will deny she had been tortured. And that’s why we remained silent in the past few weeks,” her brother Walid said on Twitter. “Asking to appear on a video and to deny the torture doesn’t sound like a realistic demand.”

In other news

Saudi officials continue to insist that the Aramco IPO remains on track and have recently invited more than 20 advisory firms from the US, Europe and Asia to the company’s headquarters in Dhahran to pitch for roles in the listing as former Trump administration official Dina Powel helped Goldman Sachs to claw its way back into contention. According to WSJ, the oil giant plans to split the IPO into two phases: a local listing later this year followed by an international one next year with Tokyo emerging as the front-runner.

That is all for this dispatch from Riyadh Bureau. Thanks for reading! You can send your feedback by email: alomran@gmail.com. If you enjoy this newsletter please do share it with others.

Social fault lines

Welcome to the latest edition of Riyadh Bureau, a newsletter for people interested in Saudi Arabia — written by me, Ahmed Al Omran. If you are not a subscriber, please use the button below to subscribe. Send your feedback to alomran@gmail.com or via Twitter: @ahmed

Shake her.. stereotype

It is safe to assume that, as Saudi Arabia embarks on its journey of change, there will be hops, jumps and leaps. There will also be slips, drops and stumbles. Because change is not easy and can take many shapes and forms. That being said, it is very difficult to know where to place the decision to invite Nicki Minaj to perform in the kingdom on the aforementioned spectrum.

The coastal city of Jeddah has been celebrating a new summer festival, which included many concerts by famous acts, including the Backstreet Boys as reported in last month’s dispatch of the newsletter.

As a result of the escalating crackdown on dissent over the last 24 months, conservatives have remained largely quiet as the country opened its doors to more entertainment, from music concerts to cinema theatres. But even for those who might be open to the changes taking place, this was probably a step too far.

“You can’t be fucking serious and bring Nicki Minaj in Saudi Arabia, and then tell Saudi girls to wear the abaya when they want to have fun,” a Saudi woman said in a profanity-laced video posted on Twitter. “She’s going to go and shake her ass and all her songs are indecent and about sex and shaking ass and then you tell me to wear the abaya,” she added. “What the hell?”

It is important to note here that the woman’s objection was not against the concert per se, but rather the hypocrisy and paradox it represented. This issue of contradictions, particularly when it comes to defining what is acceptable social behaviour in public, won’t go away and we are likely to see it spring up repeatedly in the coming months and years as the state continues to push its new agenda.

The organisers wanted to emphasise that hosting a performer likes Minaj shows how much the country has changed. “There is a stereotype of the kingdom all over the world, and today it is disappearing,” said Raed Abuzinada, a senior official with the General Entertainment Authority. “In its place is a new picture of the kingdom, that accepts everyone.”

Everyone, really?

As controversy around the concert mounted, Minaj eventually announced withdrawing from the event because she says she wants to show support for women’s rights, gay rights and freedom of expression. Her decision came after pressure from activists and human rights groups, including the New York-based Human Rights Foundation.

“We are grateful to Nicki Minaj for her inspiring and thoughtful decision to reject the Saudi regime’s transparent attempt at using her for a public relations stunt,” HRF said in a statement.

The next day, Saudi newspapers carried reports saying a decision was made to cancel Minaj’s concert before she announced her withdrawal. The reason given: “She violates the nature of music concerts organised in Saudi Arabia.” It was a classic we-cancelled on-her-before-she-cancelled-on-us move, but it did raise the question about how the decision to invite her came about in the first place.

Warning: music inside

Minaj was out, but the show continued nevertheless: Janet Jackson, 50 Cent and Chris Brown joined the lineup and the concerts appeared to be successful.

For a country where music has been largely forbidden in public for at least 3 decades, the return of music as part of the social reforms promoted by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman represents a potential landmine, not just when it comes for major events like concerts in sold-out arenas but also on a smaller, individual level.

Earlier this month, a man from Riyadh took to Twitter to complain that he was forced to leave a restaurant after the manager refused his request to turn off the music that was playing there. His tweets, including the hashtag “Restaurants against God,” quickly went viral and sparked the uncomfortable debate around a practice common all around the world but one that was only allowed in Saudi Arabia in the last two years.

While some people argued that he should have sought a restaurant that fit his personal beliefs instead of asking this one to turn off the music, the man insisted that he was well within his right as a customer to make such request. “I demand that restaurants put a sign outside that indicates there is music inside,” he said.

This incident might seem trivial, but in reality it does reflect the sense of disorientation that many conservatives feel as they silently watch the country changes around them. If the increasing presence of music and gender-mixing in public makes them feel uncomfortable then they should brace themselves because there is more on the way, and the next two items on the menu are just as controversial.

Like a prayer

The government plans to allow women to travel abroad without asking them to get consent from their male guardians, another long-awaited social change. The plan was first reported by local daily Okaz in a vaguely-worded front page story, and later confirmed by the Wall Street Journal and myself.

Under current rules, women of any age and men under 21 need a guardian’s permission for international travel. A government committee has been instructed to reconsider the restrictions and is expected to change the rules to allow men and women to travel without the the guardian’s consent after they reach the legal age, which could be 18 or 21.

Human rights groups have always criticised the kingdom for treating women as “perpetual minors.” Some people worry that granting women the freedom to travel could lead to a semi-exodus for those who want to escape the control of abusive men in their lives, but this step would definitely represent a turning point for the women’s rights movement in the country even as some of its most prominent figures remain on trial.

The other change that could be in the way is ending the practice of forcing shops to close for prayers, although there is far less clarity on that issue. The cabinet this month approved a plan to allow retail outlets to stay open 24 hours a day for a fee. Confusion over what that exactly meant dominated the hours after the cabinet meeting.

Al Arabiya said in a tweet that the decision included remaining open during prayers. But when a deputy minister was asked about it on air, he refused to answer. Pressed repeatedly by the anchor to clarify, the official kept saying: “this decision has nothing to do with opening or closing during prayer time.”

The channel deleted their tweet, but Okaz newspaper reported the next day that a decision to open businesses during prayer times was imminent, citing “trusted source.” Social media influencers linked to the government also appeared to hint at the same thing. 

Closing shops for prayer has been a source of deep frustration for many of us who feel forced to deal an unnecessary annoyance on a daily basis. Ending that would represent a major shift to the rhythm of life in the country, and while mosques are likely to continue welcoming the same numbers of worshippers, a move like this would be seen by many conservatives as the latest attempt to change the Muslim identity of the nation and push it towards more westernisation.

In case you missed it

One of my recent stories for FT highlights a renewed effort by the Saudi government to convince citizens abroad to come home as authorities become increasingly concerned about a vocal diaspora who can potentially damage the official reform narrative.

Passport photo is courtesy of BA

That is all for this dispatch from Riyadh Bureau. Thanks for reading! You can send your feedback by email: alomran@gmail.com. If you enjoy this newsletter please do share it with others.

Modicum of nostalgia

Welcome to the latest edition of Riyadh Bureau, a newsletter for people interested in Saudi Arabia — written by me, Ahmed Al Omran. If you are not a subscriber, use the button below to subscribe. Send your feedback to alomran@gmail.com or via Twitter: @ahmed

Drivers in training

It’s been a year since Saudi Arabia lifted the ban on women driving. Even though the significant event was overshadowed by the government decision to arrest female activists just weeks before implementation, gaining more access to freedom of movement cannot be underestimated as Saudi women continue to seek more rights.

There are no official statistics on how many women are on the roads now, but it is clear that the demand for licenses far outstrips the limited capacity of driving schools in the country where the waiting lists remain long.

Some women who know how to drive have take the risk of doing so even without a license, and the police have been generally lenient about it, while others have traveled to neighbouring Bahrain and UAE to obtain licenses that are valid in the kingdom under the GCC rules.

To get a taste of what the experience of driving has been like for a Saudi woman, this account by Lulwa Shalhoub on the BBC website is worth reading:

After 12 months, does seeing women drive still turn heads?

It certainly stood out when I, a Saudi woman, first drove a female friend in the front passenger seat and three male colleagues (two Westerners and a Saudi), in the back seat. They told me other drivers raised their eyebrows on seeing something which was not yet a familiar sight.

For me at least, noticing women drivers continues to fill me with pride and joy.

I see women driving fully veiled (except for their eyes) as well as women without headscarves, which is part of the usual dress code for women in Saudi Arabia.

Driving, it seems, allows women to assert a modicum of individuality and freedom of choice.

While women do not need the permission of their male guardian to apply for a driving license, some women have in recent months sought to protect this right by including it as a condition in their marriage contracts, as Anuj Chopra reports for AFP.

Using conditions in marriage contracts to assert certain rights is a tactic that has been previously advocated by some women activists, but the vocal demands to end male guardianship in the kingdom have notably quieted down as some of the most prominent figures of the feminist movement remain on trial.

‘Body is heavy’

The trial reportedly resumed on Thursday as Saudi Arabia found itself under renewed scrutiny over its human rights record in recent weeks after Agnes Callamard, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, released a report calling for investigating Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman because there is “credible evidence” that he and other senior officials were liable for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Callamard was given access to some recordings of conversations inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul but she was not allowed to obtain a copy of the recordings or a transcript. Based on these recordings, she provides some disturbing details of the last hours before Khashoggi was killed:

At 13:02, inside the Consulate, Mr. Mutreb and Dr. Tubaigy had a conversation just minutes before Mr. Khashoggi entered. Mr. Mutreb asked whether it will “be possible to put the trunk in a bag?” Dr. Tubaigy replied “No. Too heavy.” He expressed hope that it would “be easy. Joints will be separated. It is not a problem. The body is heavy. First time I cut on the ground. If we take plastic bags and cut it into pieces, it will be finished. We will wrap each of them.” (…) At the end of the conversation, Mr. Mutreb asked whether “the sacrificial animal” has arrived. At 13:13, a voice said “he has arrived.”

Callamard acknowledged in her report the “extreme sensitivity” of considering the criminal responsibility of the crown prince and his top aide Saud al-Qahtani, a senior adviser to the royal court who has not been charged. “No conclusion is made as to guilt,” she wrote. “The only conclusion made is that there is credible evidence meriting further investigation, by a proper authority, as to whether the threshold of criminal responsibility has been met” for the two men.

Saudi Arabia rejected the report, saying it was based on “prejudice and pre-fabricated ideas.” But the lack of clarity around Qahtani’s fate in particular remains a point of concern for US officials who have put him on sanctions lists and reportedly pressed their Saudi counterparts for “a fair and transparent judicial process without undue delay.”

The Wall Street Journal said Prince Mohammed has placed Qahtani under house arrest to show the US that the Saudis were getting serious and wanted to reset the post-Khashoggi relationship with Washington. But Saudi officials told WSJ that Qahtani remains an adviser to Prince Mohammed behind the scenes and won’t face serious punishment beyond restricted movements.

(Not very) angry friends

That reset of the relationship appears to be already on track: US President Donald Trump had a breakfast meeting with the crown prince during the G20 summit in Osaka this week. As they started the meeting, Trump praised the kingdom’s de facto leader:

It’s an honor to be with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, a friend of mine, a man who has really done things in the last five years in terms of opening up Saudi Arabia. And I think especially what you’ve done for women. I’m seeing what’s happening; it's like a revolution in a very positive way.

Trump ignored questions about Khashoggi ahead of the meeting, but he addressed the issue later in the day during a press conference. He said he was “extremely angry and very unhappy” about the murder but added that “nobody has directly pointed a finger” at the crown prince.

Trump has remained a staunch defender of the crown prince and relations with Saudi Arabia despite push back from Congress and calls by some presidential candidates to re-examine the alliance. Prince Mohammed earlier this month gave a long interview to Saudi-owned London-based pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat where he dismissed anti-Saudi sentiments in the US:

Throughout the Kingdom’s history, however, we have previously faced such campaigns that are often biased and not based on accurate information. We constantly seek to clarify facts and misconceptions by some parties in the US and other countries. We listen to various views and we welcome constructive and rational advise, but ultimately our priority is our national interest.

Last year’s G20 summit in Buenos Aires was somewhat awkward for the crown prince as it came just few weeks after the Khashoggi murder. But this time around saw MBS being re-embraced and positioned front and centre, as the kingdom prepares to host next year’s summit in the capital Riyadh.

The crown prince also sat for meetings with other world leaders, including Vladimir Putin who announced that the two countries agreed to extend oil production cuts. Does the announcement signal Russia’s takeover of Opec as some people say? Not necessarily, but Saudi Arabia cannot keep cutting production in perpetuity, as David Sheppard noted in FT last week.

“At some point Saudi Arabia will need to start fighting again for market share, boosting production and accepting the resultant period of lower prices as a necessary cost of slowing down its rivals,” he wrote.

The Saudi-Russian agreement should provide some assurances to the oil market after few nervous weeks following sabotage attacks on tankers in the Gulf as well as targeting of oil infrastructure in the kingdom. The tension in the region has fluctuated as all parties said they want to avoid war, but the frequency of Yemen’s Houthi drone attacks on southwest Saudi Arabia has increased nevertheless. Abha airport was targeted twice in June, leaving one person dead and more than 30 people injured.

Want it that way

Rising political tensions have not slowed down the pace of Saudi social and cultural reforms, with Jeddah summer season in full swing and the city announcing plans to host the kingdom’s first international festival next year, but not without the usual controversy or two.

Dubai-based nightclub White announced it would open a pop-up venue on Jeddah’s waterfront, with American artist Ne-Yo slated to perform for its inauguration. As videos started circulating on social media about the nightclub and its “halal bar,” the General Entertainment Authority said it would investigate the event despite the fact that a senior official denied there were any violations there just two days earlier.

The confusion around the event has led Ne-Yo to cancel his appearance. The venue apparently did re-open in the end

Ne-Yo was a no show, but Saudi millennials got a proper does of 90s nostalgia as the Backstreet Boys took the stage at King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah before a very enthusiastic crowd over this weekend. My friends even made these cool T-shirts for the concert, featuring the band’s name in Arabic above pixel art drawings of its members:

Such performances by local and international artists are likely to continue to be controversial, even though conservatives who would typically oppose them are no longer feeling safe enough about expressing that publicly, but those who support them are feeling increasingly emboldened to defend them.

“We got sick of living double lives and wasting our fortunes in neighbouring countries to attend concerts organised there for Saudi singers,” columnist Akl al-Akl wrote in al-Hayat daily.

The fact that the kingdom’s minister of Islamic affairs, a Sharia-trained scholar who previously led the religious police, is now openly meeting with a female deputy minister of labour to discuss women’s employment shows the rapid pace of change. A picture like this was probably unthinkable just few years ago.

In case you missed it

My latest big piece for FT, co-written with Andrew England, examines how Saudi businesses are adapting as the kingdom undergoes difficult economic reforms to make the country less dependent on oil revenues. Winners and losers are emerging, but a thriving private sector is essential for economic transformation and the creation of jobs for young Saudis.


That is all for this dispatch from Riyadh Bureau. Thanks for reading! You can send your feedback by email: alomran@gmail.com. If you enjoy this newsletter please do share it with others.

Ramadan review edition

Welcome to the latest edition of Riyadh Bureau, a newsletter for people interested in Saudi Arabia — written by me, Ahmed Al Omran. Send your feedback to alomran@gmail.com or via Twitter: @ahmed

Summit, summit, summit

The last ten days of Ramadan (which started on May 6) are usually a quiet affair in Saudi Arabia as the government and most businesses begin their holiday in the days leading up to Eid al-Fitr. This year is different. The final week of the Muslim holy month is bringing with it a flurry of activity as the kingdom hosts dozens of high-level foreign visitors.

Mecca was already scheduled to host a regular summit for the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation on May 31, but after recent attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure, the kingdom has also called for emergency Gulf and Arab summits to be held in conjunction with the OIC event.

The summits are seen as an effort by Saudi Arabia to rally regional support against Iran, which was blamed for the attacks, as tensions heightened after the US deployed an aircraft carrier to the Gulf and approved sending 1,500 more troops for the region.

President Donald Trump said this week that he wants to avoid war with Iran. “We’re not looking for regime change. I just want to make that clear,” he told reporters during a trip to Japan. “We’re looking for no nuclear weapons.” Both Saudi Arabia and Iran also said they don’t seek war but will defend themselves if threatened.

It remains to be seen if the summits will produce anything beyond the usual statements, but the event highlights a new Saudi approach for using pan-Islamic organisations like the OIC and Muslim World League to promote its agenda and cement its leadership role.

Drama kings and princes

Ramadan also brings with it a lot of drama, as Saudi families spend the evening hours after breaking their fast around television sets to watch the latest series and talkshows produced specifically for this time of the year.

I previously wrote for FT about al-Asouf, which sparked controversy by breaking some taboos in its depiction of life in Saudi Arabia in the early 70s. The second season of the show continued the trend by tackling the takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by extremists 1979.

The show producers were praised for how they visually recreated the scenes of a highly emotional moment, but I thought they struggled to tell the story because they could not portray members of the royal family who played central roles in the crisis on the screen, and they had to stick to the official narrative of what happened even though there are several books that have been written about that pivotal event. The one I would recommend is The Siege of Mecca by Yaroslav Trofimov.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has promoted the idea that Saudi Arabia was more tolerant and socially open before 1979, and that the rise of the kingdom’s conservative Sahwa movement, or Islamic awakening, came as a reaction to the revolution in Iran.

When I spoke to Gulf expert Kristin Diwan last year she described this as “dubious history but brilliant messaging,” and Saudi media continued to strongly push that narrative, not just through TV drama but also talkshows where clerics and other figures attempted to distance themselves from the past.

Selective recollections

“In the name of Sahwa, I apologise to Saudi society for the mistakes that have contradicted Quran and Sunnah, and contradicted the tolerance of Islam,” Sheikh Ayedh al-Qarnee told host Abdullah al-Modifer in an interview. “I am today supportive of the moderate Islam, open to the world, which has been called for by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman,” he added.

Al-Modifer also hosted two special episodes of his show from prison with men serving long jail sentences: Ali al-Fagaasi, a leader of al-Qaeda; and Adel al-Labbad, a Shia activist and poet. Both men used the interviews to offer reassessments of their past and pledge their allegiance to the crown prince and his reforms.

Along the same lines, Sheikh Adel al-Kalbani criticised gender segregation and argued that Saudi society suffers from a “phobia of women.”

The former Grand Mosque imam, who has 6.7 million followers on Twitter, said during his new show on state television that the early days of Islam didn’t have some level of exclusion of women from public life. “In the time of the prophet…men prayed at the front of the mosque and women prayed at the back without any screen or partition between them,” he said.

However, what remains largely missing from most of these programs and conversations is any critical look at the government’s role in these past events, including the rise of conservatism amid official support and sponsorship for decades until recently. Obviously it is hard to expect anything resembling a serious examination of that past in the current atmosphere, but it is something to keep in mind as we follow the debate.

In other news

Four more Saudi women activists have been temporarily released earlier this month as their trials continued. Academic Hatoon al-Fassi posted a short message on social media few days after her release:

But the most prominent woman among the detained activists, Loujain al-Hathloul, remains behind bars. Her siblings based outside the kingdom have continued campaigning for her release, speaking to the media in the US and appearing on stage at the Oslo Freedom Forum. 

“We remained silent for 8 months. And we took all the steps that we were supposed to do, following all the official channels,” her brother Walid al-Hathloul said. “We were not able to get a response from the government.”

That is all for this dispatch from Riyadh Bureau, brought to you on my 35th birthday. Thanks for reading! You can send your feedback by email: alomran@gmail.com. If you enjoy this newsletter please do share it with others.

See for yourself

Welcome to the latest edition of Riyadh Bureau, a newsletter for people interested in Saudi Arabia — written by me, Ahmed Al Omran. Send your feedback to alomran@gmail.com or via Twitter: @ahmed

Wreaking havoc

Hopes were high after three Saudi women’s rights activists on trial were granted temporary release that other detainees would also be released. These hopes were quickly dashed. As the trials progressed slowly, eight people connected to the women’s activists were detained in the first week of April. 

The latest wave of arrests was surprising, not just because of the aforementioned hopes, but also because the targets are not considered prominent activists. Most of them are writers and bloggers known for their support for political and social reforms among small circles locally, and they have kept a low profile over the last 24 months. 

Two of them recently told a friend that they felt the scrutiny following Jamal Khashoggi’s killing has created some room to breathe even if tensions remained hight. Their calculation that the government was unlikely to arrest more people while western allies continue to pressure Saudi Arabia for accountability turned out to be wrong.

The impact of outside pressure on Saudi policy has always been hotly debated, but recent events suggest that impact is rather limited: 37 people were executed on terrorism-related crimes on April 23. The majority of them were from the country’s Shia Muslim minority.

The government said in a statement that those who received capital punishment “adopted terrorist and extremist thinking and formed terrorist cells in order to wreak havoc, destabilise security, spread chaos, stir sectarian sedition and harm social stability and security.”

Many of those executed were arrested in connection to the protests and clashes in Qatif during the Arab Spring years. Human rights groups said two of them were minors at the time of arrest, including Mujtaba al-Sowaiket, who was on his way to attend college in the US when he was detained. His mother appealed to the king and crown prince to pardon him, telling FT in 2017:

It [the arrest] was something I never expected. I had a breakdown at the airport, I started screaming. My only son. A moment I have waited for since he was a little child — the moment when he goes to university. It was a huge shock.

Those executed also included a group of men arrested in 2013 over charges of spying for Iran.

Frightened of things

The executions took place on the eve of the Saudi Financial Sector conference. It was the largest business forum held in Riyadh this year, and the theme of the event seemed to be that the kingdom is emerging from the dark cloud that overshadowed the PIF-backed Future Investment Initiative last October.

Neither the executions nor Khashoggi were mentioned as top Western bankers and financiers like BlackRock’s Larry Fink and John Flint of HSBC appeared on stage to praise Saudi economic reforms and the “great opportunities” offered by the kingdom.

When asked if the political climate surrounding Saudi Arabia is hurting its ability to attract investment, finance minister Mohammed al-Jadaan urged international businesses to ignore negative coverage of the kingdom. “To a large extent, people will need to let go part of what they see in the media and come see for themselves,” he said. “Investors who are actually familiar with the region are investing in the region.”

Funk agreed with the minister: “The fact that there are issues in the press does not tell me I must run away from a place. In many cases it tells me I should run to [it] and invest because what we are most frightened of things that we don’t talk about.”

Saudi Arabia also used the conference to highlight that its economy is picking up. The finance ministry said the first quarter results show that the state budget posted a 27.8 billion surplus, boosted by growth in both oil and non-oil revenues.

The second day of the conference was rife with rumours that the crown prince would make a surprise appearance amid heightened security measures. Organisers used the rumours to push guests to attend the final sessions (“please go inside because the doors would be locked before the crown prince arrives”) but the event was concluded without any royal selfies.

Public distaste

Will selfies be allowed under the “law for the protection of public taste” that was passed by the cabinet last week? This is still unclear. Like several laws passed by the government in recent years, the articles are written in a broad way that makes them open to wide interpretation.

For example, Article 4 states that it is “not permissible to appear in public in an improper clothes or outfit, or to wear a clothing or outfit that bears pictures, shapes, signs or expressions that offend public taste.” Violations are punishable by up to 5,000 riyals fine.

Assel Aljaied, assistant professor of criminal law at the Institute of Public Administration, wrote in al-Watan daily that the new law could potentially bring back issues previously associated with the religious police before the force was stripped of its power in 2016.

“The public taste law should be more detailed: what is the desired modest dress code? What are the limits of modesty? Is the veil part of the modest dress? What is the form and colour of this veil?” he asked, calling for detailed bylaws to be written by legal experts.

In the meantime, uniformed policemen are already wielding the new law (even though it doesn’t come into affect until mid-May) as they attempt to control public behaviour at a time when social life is becoming increasingly open, particularly in major cities.

The escalating intrusiveness by police would have been a surprising development in that context, but the truth is my threshold for surprise is very high nowadays. 

That is all for this dispatch from Riyadh Bureau. Thanks for reading! You can send your feedback by email: alomran@gmail.com. If you enjoy this newsletter please do share it with others.

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