Are women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia facing dark times again? Two harsh sentences in August indicate this: at the beginning of the month, the student Salma al-Schehab was sentenced to 34 years in prison, shortly afterwards Nourah bint Saeed al-Qahtani to 45 years in prison. Both were accused of violating anti-terrorism and cybercrime laws.
What both cases have in common is that the convicted women were not well-known women’s rights activists. Nevertheless, according to the human rights organization “Democracy for the Arab World Now” (DAWN), the judges justified their verdict by saying that by liking and retweeting articles about women’s and human rights in social media, the women disrupted public order and the Internet contributed to the “disintegration of the social order”.
Outrage fizzles out in the shortage of raw materials
DAWN was founded in February 2018 by the Saudi regime critic and journalist Jamal Kashoggi in Washington. Six months later, Kashoggi was murdered and dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The case sparked an international outcry.
Traditional allies from North America and Europe then turned their backs on Saudi Arabia and what Western secret services believed to be the suspected client, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. But this changed with the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent sanctions against Moscow: In order to compensate for the lack of raw material deliveries, the oil giant was approached again. In July, US President Joe Biden visited Saudi Arabia. Crown Prince bin Salman visited several European capitals.
Saudis flex their muscles
According to analysts, the timing of the two draconian judgments is no coincidence: “The Saudi leadership has decided to show the US and the West how many levers they currently have,” said Cinzia Bianco from the Berlin think tank European Council on Foreign Relations. The message is: You think you are in such a strong position that you don’t have to listen to any calls for the rule of law.
After the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul (archive photo), the West temporarily turned its back on Saudi Arabia
A statement by Abdullah Alaoudh, DAWN’s head of department for the Gulf region, also points in this direction: “It is impossible not to see a connection between the meeting between Mohammed bin Salman and Joe Biden and the repressive attacks on anyone who dares to use the To criticize crown princes or the Saudi government for their well-documented violations.”
Selective reform program for Saudi women
Lina al-Hathloul, sister of the released women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul and spokeswoman for the London-based human rights organization ALQST, told DW that the new record sentence against Nourah bint Saeed al-Qahtani was a clear message from the crown prince: “It reveals that his reprisals will continue and intensify the brutality against anyone who dares to speak out.” She is convinced that bin Salman wants to rule Saudi Arabia with a muzzled, frightened society.
In the five years since the 36-year-old took over the de facto government business, Saudi Arabia has gone through an economic and structural reform program. The “Vision 2030” also included significantly greater rights for women.
Women’s rights activist Lujain al-Hathloul has been released from prison but is still not allowed to travel or speak in public
Today, women can live alone, marry and divorce independently of a male guardian. They are allowed to drive, join the armed forces or go to work, travel abroad, attend international concerts and movies, and make pilgrimages to Mecca.
“However, the reforms, the MBS (Mohammed bin Salman, Ed.) has advocated, always only of an economic and social nature. At the same time, the situation of women has worsened at the political and civic level,” says analyst Bianco.
Alleged police violence against women
Even calls for improvement in people’s basic needs have drawn brutal violence from the authorities. Videos showing police officers and other security forces beating women with fists, leather belts and wooden sticks have been circulated online under the hashtag #KhamisMushaitOrphans. An officer drags a woman by her hair through the backyard of an orphanage in Chamnis Muschait in the south-west of the country.
According to previously unconfirmed reports in several Arab media, the women had criticized the conditions in the orphanage. The governor of Asir province has called for “all sides involved” to be investigated and the case referred to “competent authorities”.
Hoping for international pressure
Hoping to generate international attention and thus pressure, more than 30 international human rights organizations have denounced Salma al-Shehab’s 34-year prison sentence in an open letter: “Contrary to the state’s rhetoric about human rights, including women’s rights and legal reforms, the real drivers of reform – activists calling for fundamental rights – continue to be ruthlessly persecuted and silenced,” the document said.
An update to the letter could include the record prison sentence against Nourah bint Saeed al-Qahtani and the outbreak of violence at the orphanage.
Translated from the English by Jan D. Walter