It is unclear what the charges against the new detainees are, although they have one thing in common: crimes of omission. They are all independent writers who have failed to provide zealous support for the prince and his new initiatives. Most of them were enthusiastic about the 2011 Arab uprisings but since the prince came to power in 2017 have remained silent and refrained from criticizing his policies.
Clearly this was not enough. The prince wants all to praise his plans and join the propaganda machine that his coterie of aides presides over. His cult of personality is pervasive and all-encompassing. It has become sacrosanct, above all criticism and in constant need of being worshiped by citizens. Those who fail to pay homage to the “Son King” commit a crime by omission.
Among the detainees is popular journalist and author Badr al-Rashed, who had worked in state media but cherished his own independence. He published and contributed to several books. His writings reflect a revisionist approach to Arab nationalism. Like many other young intellectuals, he rejects the populist Arab nationalist ideologies of the 1960s such as Nasserism and Baathism, both associated with the authoritarian rule that has dominated the Arab world.
Instead, Rashed and many other writers became known as neo-Arabists because of their efforts to decouple the idea of nationalism from the wretched ideologies that justified dictatorships. Their popular insights are troubling for MBS. Neo-Arabists such as Rashed find ways to combine local patriotism with commitment to regional Arab integration — and that competes with the crown prince’s “Saudi Arabia First” and “Saudi Arabia is Great” slogans, which echo the populist slogans of his patron, President Trump, in Washington.
The prince’s new Saudi nationalism does not care about Arab regional economic integration but is focused on launching wars, for example in Yemen, and interfering in Arab uprisings to derail them from achieving democracy. “Saudi Arabia is Great” means that dictatorship and authoritarian rule should remain the dominant feature not only in the kingdom but also across the region. Greatness is tied to the survival of absolute rule. Though the first wave of the Arab uprisings failed, the threat of the current protest movement — gaining strength in Iraq, Lebanon, Algeria and other countries — is a clear reminder that uprisings are always below the surface. The integration of Arab grievances across borders haunts the crown prince as much as it haunts his totalitarian allies in Cairo, Bahrain and elsewhere.
The prince has targeted other young writers because their old online posts appeal to young Saudis in search of fresh insights on public policies and regional issues. Two detainees, Fuad al-Farhan and Musab Fuad, founded Rwaq, an open and free online “academy” to train students and teachers. Such an independent initiative was deemed subversive as it falls outside the tentacles of the crown prince.
The “reformist” autocracy that the prince has consolidated falls short of accepting youth initiatives outside his reach. His “liberalism” dictates that even entertainment and art must be under his control. Legitimate feminism is only the one he endorses, while other feminist perspectives and movements are criminalized and their advocates are incarcerated, like Loujain al-Hathloul.
The prince’s new Saudi nationalism stipulates that Saudi Arabia is for Saudis, thus divorcing the country from its own heritage as part of the Arab region. The new detained writers have different views. As such, they need to be silenced lest they puncture his vision.
Mohammed bin Salman is definitely leading the kingdom to nowhere. His plan to revive the economy is stumbling, with the recent IPO of the state oil company, Aramco, failing to gain international support because of a general lack of trust.
But as long as his patrons in Washington remain silent over his excesses, MBS will continue to detain and torture activists, intellectuals and feminists. His faltering economic megaprojects will simply increase detention as he becomes nervous over his future as the “Son King.”