ONE VIEW of Saudi Arabia was on display at the just-completed World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where the kingdom sought to reassure investors and show off traditional Saudi food, music and culture. The finance minister, Mohammed al-Jadaan, declared, "Saudi Arabia today is different. It's not Saudi Arabia five years ago." He and other ministers extolled the "Vision 2030" blueprint for modernization championed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the young go-getter who has vowed to overturn the kingdom's hidebound ways.
But the old Saudi Arabia was still evident back at home. On Thursday, two human rights activists, Mohammed al-Otaibi and Abdullah al-Attawi, were sentenced to 14 and seven years in prison, respectively, for briefly founding a human rights organization about five years ago. No matter that they heeded the government's demands to close it; the prosecution painted such things as publishing human rights reports, disseminating information to the news media and retweeting posts on Twitter as criminal acts.
Saudi Arabia's crown prince rightly sees the need to satisfy a restless younger generation by cracking down on endemic corruption, diversifying the economy away from oil and easing the tight grip of the religious police. Women have deservedly been celebrating moves to permit them to drive and attend sports events. But beneath it all, the crown prince has been overseeing the same intolerant and brutal approach to free expression and human rights that was a trademark of his predecessors. This is a dark underside that the crown prince apparently does not want to change.
The prosecution of Mr. Otaibi and Mr. Attawi was full of absurd twists. They and two others set up the Union for Human Rights in April 2013 and issued several statements on social media. They were summoned for investigation less than a month later. They promised to close the organization. Then they applied for a formal license to open the nongovernmental organization but could not get one. Mr. Otaibi and Mr. Attawi were warned again to stop their activities in 2014, and they again pledged to do so. Then, in 2016, the case was reopened. In March 2017, Mr. Otaibi left the kingdom for Qatar, where he managed to win asylum in Norway. As he prepared to depart for Norway, he was apprehended at the Doha airport and returned to Saudi authorities. The punishment last week was imposed by the Specialized Criminal Court, the Saudi terrorism tribunal, which has often been used to punish dissidents and critics, and it was clearly designed to send a message to any others who dare advocate human rights.
All who are intrigued by the crown prince's ambitions should take note of the stubborn persistence of old thinking when it comes to liberty and rights. Raif Badawi, a blogger who envisioned a more enlightened Saudi Arabia, was imprisoned and flogged for his ideas, and remains incarcerated. The twinkling promises for overseas investors at Davos cannot mask the fact that Saudi Arabia is still what it was five years ago — a dungeon for those who dare speak out.
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