Sarah Aziza is a journalist specializing in the Middle East, human rights, foreign affairs and gender. Her work has appeared in Harper’s Magazine, the Atlantic, Slate, the Intercept and the Nation, among others. She can be found on Twitter at @SarahAziza1.
Months after the Saudi government jailed some of its most prominent female activists, new reports say the women have endured torture and sexual abuse in detention. The accounts, coming from multiple sources, are appalling and include allegations ranging from electrocution and flogging to forced kissing and groping at the hands of masked interrogators. If true, these actions would stand in flagrant violation of international law, including the Convention Against Torture, which Saudi Arabia has signed. Now, sources close to the women have linked the women’s mistreatment to Saud al-Qahtani, a former top adviser to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who has also been implicated in the murder of Saudi journalist and Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi.
Yet these shocking revelations have so far garnered scant response from an international community that has repeatedly dismissed these women’s plight. Their suffering began months ago — many have been jailed since May under trumped-up accusations of treason. Most of the Western media and world leaders were too enamored with Mohammed as a would-be reformer to confront the prince over the matter. Even as human rights groups warned of miscarried justice, most mainstream outlets preferred to focus on the narrative of a “Saudi renaissance” in which a young, moderate ruler had just granted women the right to drive.
At the end of June, as the ban on female drivers lifted, most overlooked the irony that many of the activists who gave years or decades to the cause of women’s rights remained behind bars. Far from the state-orchestrated celebrations, these women were the canaries that the world let languish in the coal mine of the crown prince’s “new” Saudi state.
In the end, it would take the nightmarish murder of Khashoggi to wake us to the nature of the crown prince’s reign. Yet the murder was only an extension of what had by then become an established brutal pattern of suppression by the crown prince.
Confronted with a mounting body of evidence, and a high-confidence conclusion from the CIA implicating the crown prince, his future as a legitimate world leader came into doubt — briefly. Yet apart from a smattering of partial sanctions and some stern statements by politicians and human rights groups, the Saudi government has faced few meaningful consequences. Mohammed has remained on the world stage, while President Trump has repeatedly praised the crown prince and reaffirmed U.S. loyalty to the kingdom.
While some argue that Mohammed is likely to proceed with greater caution after this period of scandal, such an assessment ignores the fact that brutality has been endemic in his rule since the very beginning. In this, the case of the female reformers should have been instructive. Their arrests, long before Khashoggi’s killing, demonstrated Mohammed’s ruthless policy to preemptively strike down potential critics as well as active dissidents. Most of the women had stepped back from political organizing by the time of their detention — many, including Loujain al-Hathloul, had already received warnings from the royal court to cease their activism.
Yet even the possibility of their future action was apparently too much for the crown prince, who rewarded their compliance by pulling them from their homes into the murky waters of the Saudi penal system. (In some cases, the women had been subject to earlier travel bans or forced repatriation, which bear ominous parallels to Khashoggi’s exile.) The women’s treatment after their arrests should also have been telling: Whereas female detainees in Saudi Arabia had traditionally been dealt with quietly, these women were subject to an unprecedented campaign of public defamation. The government circulated lurid reports linking them to foreign espionage and Qatari plots, and accusing them of dishonoring the reputation of the Saudi state. The government also published photographs of many of the women, a shocking move in a still-conservative society. As one human rights expert working in the region told me, “We’ve never seen women’s faces plastered on the front pages in this way — it’s an attack on their honor, and their family’s honor, that could be very dangerous for them all.” (Notably, the 18 Saudis arrested by the state in connection to Khashoggi’s killing have not been named publicly.)
In these moments, the crown prince revealed he did not feel bound even by the traditional standards of his own culture or state. By failing to recognize the unprecedented viciousness of his attack on the women prisoners, the international community missed several important chances to chastise the crown prince — chastisement which would have come months before Khashoggi’s death. Instead, the collective dismissal of the women’s mistreatment signaled to Mohammed to proceed in his march toward unilateral control of both hard and soft power in the kingdom.
It was this single-minded mission that motivated Mohammed to tighten his censorship on the Saudi press even as he spent millions marketing himself as a liberalizing reformer. This censorship is what drove Khashoggi to flee the kingdom, and what motivated him to speak out against the royal family, whom he once supported. Khashoggi saw the signs, and he paid dearly for his decision to bring them to light.
If there was ever a time to doubt the nature of the crown prince’s rule, it has long since past. As the grisly reports of torture remind us, many still paying an enormous price for our misplaced credulity. And while most of us will never see the inside of a Saudi jail, the danger of an unrepentant Mohammed is a global one. Should the crown prince remain convinced that he will face no meaningful consequences for his brutality, we can expect more blood to be spilled — in Saudi Arabia, in Yemen and even elsewhere.