The classification came in stark contrast to the American ally’s aims to rebrand itself as reforming some of its policies and welcoming western tourism and business.
By Tuesday, the oil-rich kingdom was distancing itself from the move.
First, the General Department for Counter Terrorism, which produced the animated video, deleted the tweet. Then Al Watan took down its Monday article. Finally, the head of Saudi’s State Security told Saudi-owned Al Ekhbariya TV that the news was “baseless” and that the video had “many mistakes . . . defining extremism." The video, he said, was published by an unauthorized “individual."
That, though, did not quell fears that the kingdom is seeking to expand and formalize its ways to silence dissent at a time when protests for reform are rocking other Arab countries, like Iraq and Lebanon.
“It looks like by announcing this that it’s a warning to activists in the country that have been engaging in any open or closed discussion on these issues, whether it’s atheism or homosexuality or the advancement of women in the country,” said Philippe Nassif, advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa at London-based Amnesty International. “It’s meant to really chill any kind of movement that’s been growing in Saudi for change.”
Nassif posited that Saudi Arabia could have used the designation to try people in its notoriously harsh anti-terrorism courts. “We are concerned that this is a facade that’s been constructed to continue a vicious crackdown in the kingdom,” he said.
Homosexuality and atheism have long been criminalized in the conservative Muslim kingdom. Both are already grounds for capital punishment.
But the public equation of feminism with extremism in particular raised eyebrows now as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has made increasing women’s rights a prominent part of efforts to retool the country’s economy and attract foreign investors and tourists, even as he has overseen a widespread crackdown on political dissent and locked up feminist activists.
Hala al-Dosari, a Saudi scholar and activist, described the initial inclusion of feminism on the list as “institutionalizing the treatment that’s [already been] happening to the women” and providing another formal basis for charges and arrests.
“It’s trying to reshape the regulations and laws inside Saudi Arabia in a way to control public movements,” she said. “The whole idea is trying to control the narrative, making sure that feminism is owned by the state or the agenda-setting power is in the hands of the leadership rather than the women’s activists."
Since effectively becoming the country’s top leader in 2017, Prince Mohammed has repealed some of its most draconian restrictions on women, such as prohibitions against driving and traveling without a male guardian. State-sponsored programs have even brought in Instagram and other social media influencers to try to rebrand the country’s image.
But critics say there’s a darker side: Mohammed tolerates only the changes he wants.
The prince has jailed many of the female activists who for years campaigned for the right to drive. Human rights groups say the charges are trumped up and that the women have been tortured by authorities.
In another high-profile case, the United Nations and Central Intelligence Agency have both concluded there is “credible evidence” that Saudi officials, including the crown prince, were behind the murder of journalist and Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last year. Khashoggi, a Virginia resident, was a prominent critic of the Saudi government, including the crown prince.
A year later, there has been no justice for Khashoggi, as other Saudi dissidents continue to be pursued inside and outside the country. And while Khashoggi’s killing initially was a catalyst for American companies and leaders to distance themselves from the investment-hungry kingdom — that didn’t last long, as The Post reported in July.
“Saudi Arabia’s efforts to influence U.S. policy continue unabated — bolstered by President Trump’s embrace of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman,” Beth Reinhard, Jonathan O’Connell and Tom Hamburger of The Post reported. “Since fall 2018, high-powered lobbyists and lawyers have reaped millions of dollars for assisting the kingdom as it works to develop nuclear power, buy American-made weapons and prolong U.S. assistance to the Saudi-led coalition waging war in Yemen, foreign lobbying records show.”
Controversy over use of the term “feminism,” however, also has a significant local context. Historically, some in the Middle East have equated feminism with Western colonialism or imperialism, seeing the movement as an excuse for the United States and European nations to justify their own political interventions and agendas.
Nonetheless, Saudi women have long been pushing for change from within.
“The Saudi feminist movement has proved to be the most organised and articulate civil society in the country,” Saudi professor of social anthropology Madawi al-Rasheed wrote this year in the Guardian. “It operates on multiple levels. On the ground, teachers, doctors, charity workers and civil servants silently help battered women and report abuse. At another level, there are those vocal women who have taken the struggle to be free and equal beyond Saudi Arabia, securing the support of the global feminist movement. This annoys the regime as it punctures the persistent narrative that it is the only source of protection and empowerment.”
Sarah Dadouch contributed reporting from Beirut.