The massive downsizing of the crown prince’s ambitions is a direct result of plummeting international confidence in his regime since the murder last year of exiled journalist and Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi. Yet MBS, as the reckless ruler is known, appears to have learned nothing from his criminal blunders. Indeed, even as the government was working to drum up sales of Aramco shares last month, it embarked on yet another roundup of writers and journalists.
The London-based Saudi human rights group ALQST identified eight writers who were arrested between Nov. 16 and Nov. 21 in Riyadh and three other cities. All were reportedly released by Nov. 30, following widespread international publicity and protests. But ALQST says the fate of two other female writers who recently disappeared, Zana al-Shehri and Maha al-Rafidi al-Qahtani, remains unknown.
Remarkably, few of the writers had recently been active. Most were supporters of the 2011 pro-democracy uprisings in the Arab world but had fallen silent since Mohammed bin Salman’s rise to power. As exiled Saudi scholar Madawi Al-Rasheed explained in a Post op-ed, that still made them guilty, in the regime’s eyes, of “crimes of omission. They are all independent writers who have failed to provide zealous support for the prince and his new initiatives.”
The regime’s repression, which far exceeds that practiced by previous Saudi governments, is wrecking MBS’s plans to modernize and diversify the economy. Instead, Saudi Arabia is slowly going bankrupt: Its fiscal deficit this year is more than twice the amount it is raising from the Aramco share sale. Yet MBS shows no sign of changing course. According to ALQST, authorities “continue to detain a number of less well-known men and women active on Twitter who are still being held in the torture chambers where a number of leading women human rights defenders were tortured earlier.”
Following intense international criticism, the regime released to home confinement some of the 18 women’s rights activists it arrested last year. But it has not dropped criminal cases against them, and five of the best-known activists are still being held. That includes Loujain al-Hathloul and Nassima al-Sadah, who ALQST says are still in solitary confinement.
By excusing the murder of Khashoggi, President Trump encouraged Mohammed bin Salman to believe he could indulge in brutality and still attract the Western investment needed to rescue the Saudi economy. The past month’s events point to a different outcome: a regime in which intolerance and international isolation are feeding on each other.