Three things have happened in quick succession.
On January 12, Rahaf Mohammed Al-Qunun, the 18-year-old who made headlines worldwide last week for her dramatic escape from Saudi Arabia, was granted asylum in Canada.
On January 13, the court hearing of Israa Al-Ghomgham, the first Saudi woman facing the death penalty for taking part in non-violent protests, was cancelled — and a new date not given.
On January 14, Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, visited Saudi Arabia.
According to reports, Pompeo discussed “finding a political peace in Yemen and Syria, countering threats from Iran and holding the killers of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi to account”.
WHRD Israa Al-Ghomgham's trial in #SaudiArabia was postponed for the fourth time today to an indefinite date. GCHR calls for her to be freed immediately. Peaceful protest is not a crime #FreeSaudiWHRDs https://t.co/RJ30FO6zEc— GC4HR (@GulfCentre4HR) January 13, 2019
What he did not discuss was the fate of Al-Ghomgham and the many other Saudi women suffering in the country’s jails — arrested on vague charges, slapped with arbitrary cases, tortured.
So much to discuss! US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met King Salman on January 14. The arrested activists issue did not come up. (Photo: Reuters)
The events paint a picture of what’s going on in the shadowy kingdom of Saudi Arabia — the ‘liberal image’ of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (or MBS, as he is known) is being built over the broken, disrupted bones and lives of activists his administration is cracking down on.
And the major powers of the world are happy to look away.
MBS is young. For motives purely economic, he wants his country to be palatable to the West. For that, ‘attention to women’s rights’ is an easy prop. His rise to prominence in the Western media was accompanied by reports of him relaxing laws that required women to have male consent for availing many government services. The most visible aspect of his ‘liberalisation’ was the lifting of the driving ban on Saudi women.
But the credit had to go to the prince alone.
Activists — who, for years, worked and campaigned for women and civilian rights at great personal risk — could not be allowed to share the glory.
And so, MBS had them thrown into jail. Those who were not imprisoned were contacted by the authorities and warned against “talking about the issue on social media or with journalists”.
Saudi Arabia was never exactly an open society. But the swiftness and brutality of MBS’s crackdown was new.
According to Amnesty International: “The activists were repeatedly tortured by electrocution and flogging, leaving some unable to walk or stand properly. In one reported instance, one of the activists was made to hang from the ceiling, and according to another testimony, one of the detained women was reportedly subjected to sexual harassment, by interrogators wearing face masks.”
Loujain al-Hathloul is among the many women activists jailed and tortured. (Photo: AP/file)
The sister of Loujain al-Hathloul, among the more prominent activists to be jailed, writes: “I wondered how people could think a woman could be tortured in Saudi Arabia. I believed that social codes of the Saudi society would not allow it… but she [her sister] said she had been held in solitary confinement, beaten, waterboarded, given electric shocks, sexually harassed and threatened with rape and murder.”
Clearly, what MBS is offering women is not empowerment.
It is the opposite.
Had women activists been allowed to share in the moment of supposed liberation when the driving ban — an infantalising, dehumanising practice — was lifted, it would have been a great victory, hard-fought and finally won.
This way, it’s a patronising dole, a granting of a royal favour, indulgently bestowed only on those who will stay in line while they drive. Literally
But the truth is also that MBS’s actions clearly show how much despotic regimes fear brave women. The spiel that ‘women are weak and need a guardian’ is disproved by the regime’s own actions — the activists have been slapped with a great deal of intimidating, amorphous charges, including being a ‘threat to national security’.
The West is cool with most things MBS represents; only the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi caused a minor PR blip. (Photo: Reuters/file)
So, a woman speaking up for her rights is a ‘threat’ to MBS’s Saudi Arabia. Tellingly enough, in the case of Rahaf Al-Qunun, who mobilised worldwide support for herself in a few hours through Twitter, a Saudi official reportedly said: “Instead of her passport, her smartphone should have been taken away.”
In the midst of all this, the western world (with the notable exception of Canada), was till recently happily serenading MBS. In March last year, London rolled out the red carpet for him. He is most chummy with Jared Kushner, America’s First Son-In-Law. France's hip young President Emmanuel Macron was seen murmuring sweet nothings into MBS' ear at the recent G-20 meet.
Also, Saudi Arabia is a member of the UN Human Rights Council.
In fact, the only blip in MBS’s popularity seems to be the brutal hacking of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, in which his administration seems directly implicated.
The noises of reform in Saudi Arabia are a sham, but the international community is amplifying these noises. Meanwhile, the country’s women continue their lonely — and dangerous — drive for a voice.