Although Saudi Arabia has begun issuing driver's licenses to women, the monarchy continues to imprison women's rights activists and oppress minorities.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has instituted a number of reforms, offering hope for gender equality in a country that has a long history of repressing women. However, at the same time that the new license policy went into effect in early June, Saudi authorities arrested 10 more women for their political advocacy. That brought the number of such detentions in recent weeks to 17, though officials claim they have released eight of the women. Reuters reported that only four had been confirmed freed.
Loujain al-Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan, and Aisha al-Manea were jailed because they spoke out in support of women's driving rights. They are not getting the credit they deserve for the policy shift, according to Rothna Begum of Human Rights Watch.
“What the Saudi authorities seem to be trying to do is to make it clear that any reform taking place is only due to Salman,” she told Vox. “They are attempting to revise the history of the actual activism that took place by these women’s-rights activists. … (Salman) knows that he can get all of the credit for these reforms.”
The crown prince has been trying to convince the world that he is an agent of change in his conservative dictatorship, which denies basic freedoms to certain groups. Gays and lesbians are subject to the death penalty.
Salman received a warm welcome from government officials and the news media during his recent trip to the United States. “60 Minutes” called the autocrat a “revolutionary” and praised him for “emancipating women.” Celebrities such as The Rock, Morgan Freeman, and film director James Cameron sat down with Salman for dinner. The Rock described the event as “a pleasure,” adding that it was a “fascinating experience to hear his deep-rooted, yet modern views on the world and certainly the positive growth he desires for his country.”
President Trump, who often expresses admiration for authoritarian rulers, was among other Americans who held cordial meetings with Salman. Ed Lynch of George Washington University, an authority on the Middle East, called the friendly reception for the crown prince “appalling.” He said Salman's “domestic reforms and rhetoric have been carefully crafted to resonate here.”
While Salman has been responsible for some progress, including allowing women to sit in the stands at soccer matches, a male guardian still must approve a woman's decision to marry or travel abroad. The World Bank has listed Saudi Arabia as the world's seventh-most “gender-unequal” nation.
Begum warned that no one should be fooled by Salman's concession on driving rights. “We have actually seen an intensification of the repression of human-rights defenders in the country, including women’s-rights activists,” she said. “What has actually been very shocking is the way in which they’ve conducted these arrests.”
The Human Rights Watch official explained: “Shortly after they were arrested, we saw a campaign against these activists from the Saudi authorities, issuing a statement they had breached national unity, that they were in contact with foreign organizations and they were getting funding from outside the country. Local state media outlets have pictures of these women calling them traitors and going after them. You had a social media campaign as well, with the hashtag #EmbassyStooges or #EmbassySpies.”
According to Begum, Saudi authorities “are attempting to revise the history of the actual activism that took place, and make clear that there will be only one reformer: the crown prince.” She said the people “can only go to him for this reform; you cannot demand it.”
“This is a country that bans protests; that doesn’t allow independent human rights organizations,” Begum noted. “There are no trade unions in the country. Power is very much centralized in the royal family; in the king’s office, basically. … They see activism as disobedience.”
She said that although Salman “is regarded by the world as a reformer” for actions like opening movie houses, he “is not a change agent” because “he is very much part of the old guard in the way he conceives of power relations with the citizens.”
Salman also has unleashed a humanitarian crisis in Yemen, bombing hospitals and shutting off the delivery of food and medicine in his campaign against the Houthi rebels. The death toll in the past three years has topped 10,000, and about 17 million others (two-thirds of Yemeni population) are experiencing food insecurity. Damage to water and sewer systems has resulted in more than a million residents contracting cholera. Amnesty International alleges that Salman is guilty of “possible war crimes.”
The United States supports the Saudi policy in Yemen, providing training and logistical support. Saudi lobbyists have been working hard on Capitol Hill to keep the assistance coming. “Money talks,” Ben Rhodes, a foreign policy adviser for former President Obama, told Vox.