On Sept. 26, Saudi Arabia granted its female citizens the right to drive, reversing a decades-long prohibition. The latest in a number of changes shaking the conservative foundations of the kingdom, this widely publicized reform occurred in the wake of dozens of high-profile arrests. While Saudi Arabia commonly imprisons independent political voices, the recent arrests were unusual in several ways.
The Saudi regime is in the midst of profound political change. Understanding its latest decisions requires a nuanced look at its fragmented politics and the regime’s liberalizing agenda.
Why are these arrests unusual?
While some media outlets reported these arrests as targeting “Islamists,” those detained in fact represent a broad range of ideological affiliations. The Islamists include both ultraconservatives and progressives with widely different views. Conservatives such as Muhammad al-Habdan have relentlessly campaigned for more social conservatism and reject democracy. Meanwhile, progressives such as Salman al-Awda vocally supported the 2011 Arab uprisings, called for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy and even opposed state repression of homosexuality.
The list of detainees also includes several young reformist intellectuals active in the Saudi pro-democracy movement since 2011. Among them is Abdallah al-Maliki, author of a 2012 book on the religious legitimacy of popular sovereignty. Mustafa al-Hasan, the founder of a pan-Gulf youth forum encouraging the development of civil society institutions, was also arrested. Other detainees include Isam al-Zamil, a young entrepreneur who used his million-follower-strong Twitter account to offer a knowledgeable critique of Saudi economic performance, and Hasan al-Maliki, a prominent critic of Wahhabism and a regular target of conservatives.
In the past, the police would discretely summon public personalities wanted by authorities. This time, however, most of the detainees were arrested at home, in front of their families. According to my interviews, several dozen more sheikhs, intellectuals and activists were interrogated and threatened. These arrests were reportedly carried out not by the Ministry of the Interior but by a new security body created in July, the “presidency of state security,” under the direct authority of the royal court.
What explains these changes in policy? An official statement Sept. 12 described the arrests as part of a security campaign against “intelligence cells for the benefit of foreign parties.” This means Qatar. Most of the detainees had indeed avoided a stance in the current crisis. After four months of boycott without much progress, the Saudi authorities may have decided to create a diversion by scapegoating supposed domestic “Qatari agents.”
However, these arrests have deeper causes that need to be properly analyzed.
How the Saudi government supported, then turned against, Islamists
Until the early 1990s, the Saudi regime maintained close relations with a range of Islamist groups. Starting in the 1960s, the kingdom took in thousands of Muslim Brothers persecuted by Arab nationalist regimes. In the 1980s, more radical Islamists fighting in Afghanistan enjoyed the kingdom’s protection.
Those foreign activists influenced Saudi society, leading to the development of a powerful indigenous Islamist movement, the Sahwa, or “awakening.” In 1990, after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, Sahwa activists spearheaded a movement against the royal family’s invitation to base U.S. troops on its soil. This dissent landed the movement’s main figures, including al-Awda, in jail and sowed the seeds of distrust between the regime and Islamists, local and foreign.
In 2002, the then-interior minister, Prince Nayef, denounced the Muslim Brotherhood as the “source of all evil in Saudi Arabia.” That distrust only continued to grow with the Arab Spring, as Islamists won the first democratic elections in Tunisia and Egypt. Inspired by the uprisings, many Saudi Islamists circulated petitions calling for reforms in the kingdom, including the February 2011 declaration “Towards of State of Rights and Institutions,” backed by some 9,000 signatories.
Backlash against Islamists gathered steam in 2013. The Saudi regime supported the overthrow of Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi, then designated the Brotherhood and “all organizations that resemble it” terrorists. In March 2014, Saudi Arabia and its allies launched a first campaign against Qatar largely because of Doha’s support for Islamists. Since then, Saudi Islamists have recognized their peril. But previous rounds of arrests were limited to human rights activists and lesser-known Islamists.
The end of a careful balancing act of political fragmentation
Until the 2015 death of King Abdullah, the regime dealt with political conflicts through co-optation. Under this “paternalistic authoritarianism,” repression was generally a last recourse. The Saudi state was fragmented, balancing power between the royal family and the religious establishment, as well as among prominent members of the royal family itself, each with a fiefdom and clientele. Governing Saudi Arabia was a constant game of checks and balances, which allowed for some political pluralism, however constrained. The 2000s were marked by a lively debate between “Islamists” and “Liberals.” Decision-making remained the exclusive prerogative of the royal family, but these debates were important.
That system is now being dismantled. In the past two years, crown prince Muhammad bin Salman has risen rapidly, seizing control of most of the state’s powers. With the support of his father, King Salman, the prince has successfully sidelined competing royal factions, most notably former crown prince Muhammad bin Nayef, who is now reportedly under house arrest. MBS has simultaneously weakened the independent authority of the religious establishment, recently revoking the religious police’s authority to arrest “moral offenders.”
In place of the horizontality and consensus seeking that previously characterized the Saudi system, there is now a vertical line of power ending with MBS. In my interviews, his supporters have justified this shift by the need for efficient decision-making during times of crisis, rather than the political inertia that once marked the Saudi system.
Central to that narrative is the crown prince’s modernizing project for Saudi Arabia outlined in his “Vision 2030,” an ambitious plan of economic and social reforms announced in 2016. A significant part of that plan consists in “liberalizing” Saudi society from above. For a kingdom worried about its image abroad, allowing women to drive in the wake of massive arrests is of course no coincidence.
Domestically, the decision was justified as an economic necessity, with no mention of the hundreds of female activists who campaigned for three decades for that right. Doing so could have risked suggesting that the government was reacting to social pressures and encourage further dissent.
Though mostly popular, the modernizing reforms have little to do with empowering civil society or promoting democratic governance. They are better understood as a bid to make the Saudi leadership yet another “modernizing autocrat” in the region. The new social pact offered is simple: fewer political freedoms in exchange for the promise of state-driven social progress and economic results. Saudi Arabia is no longer the exception it once was.
Stéphane Lacroix is an associate professor of political science at Sciences Po, Paris, and a research fellow at the Centre de Recherches Internationales (CERI).