The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Saudi Arabia’s crackdown on dissent keeps going. Here are the latest arrests.

Saudi participants at the Future Investment Initiative last month in Riyadh stand for the national anthem in front of a screen displaying images of King Salman, right, and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. (Amr Nabil/AP)

Saudi Arabia has over the past two weeks detained at least eight citizens critical of the kingdom, in what rights groups are calling an escalation in an already two-year-long crackdown on dissent.

News of the arrests came in stark contrast with Saudi’s efforts to rebrand the nation as open to tourism and investments and as a critical U.S. ally in its confrontations with Iran. These efforts have also progressed despite the conclusion by U.S. intelligence that top Saudi leadership ordered and orchestrated the assassination of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi last year, alongside other diplomatic debacles such as the ongoing Saudi-led war in Yemen.

Here’s a look at the major arrests and repression over the past two years.

The latest wave: November

Plainclothes police took at least eight intellectuals, writers and entrepreneurs from their homes in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, and Jiddah, a port city along the Red Sea, between Nov. 16 and 21, according to the London-based Saudi rights group ALQST.

The exact reason for their arrests remains unclear. Those arrested were not high-profile or publicly active dissidents, ALQST reported.

Abdullah Alaoudh, a senior fellow at Georgetown University and a critic of the Saudi regime, told NBC that some of those arrested had been active during the Arab Spring in 2011 and were part of a book club in Saudi Arabia.

One reported detainee is activist and blogger Fouad al-Farhan, who was one of Saudi’s most popular bloggers when he was arrested in 2007. He was later sentenced to prison but had his jail time commuted after he agreed to cease blogging instead.

Crown prince’s crackdown

It’s the latest in an ongoing offensive on political freedoms under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

More than 200 Saudi nationals have been detained in the past year as part of the rights crackdown, according to Adam Coogle of Human Rights Watch.

“There are of course many, many people arrested in between” major waves whose names HRW doesn’t have, Coogle added.

Mohammed has ushered in unprecedented changes to Saudi Arabia’s economy and society, including opening up the country to tourists and repealing laws that limited the rights of women to drive and travel.

At the same time, he has doubled down on suppressing any kind of change, criticism or calls for reform outside his control.

“Riyadh denies having political prisoners, but senior officials have said monitoring of activists, and potentially detaining them, is needed to maintain social stability,” Reuters reported.

That argument doesn’t cut it, Coogle said.

“It’s just all part of the repression campaign against independent voices in Saudi society,” Coogle said. “If people weren’t scared to talk before, they would be now.”

The message to Saudi citizens after these arrests, he said, is to “go to your concerts and enjoy your entertainment. … But don’t you dare say a critical word.”

April: More bloggers and writers arrested

Coogle said the group arrested in November reportedly had ties to at least seven Saudi writers and bloggers arrested in April.

According to ALQST, the group included one pregnant woman and two dual U.S.-Saudi citizens. They also were not considered major activists but had been under a travel ban since the month before, ALQST reported.

On Oct. 2, 2018, Saudi agents killed Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. What has been done in the aftermath? (Video: Joyce Lee, Thomas LeGro, Dalton Bennett, John Parks/The Washington Post)

October 2018: Murder of critic Jamal Khashoggi

Khashoggi — a Virginia resident and Washington Post contributing columnist — was killed and dismembered last year in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. The CIA has concluded that Mohammed gave the assassination order. Khashoggi was a prominent critic of Mohammed, and his death was a chilling message to other dissidents and Saudi nationals that even those outside of the kingdom are not safe.

CIA concludes Saudi crown prince ordered Jamal Khashoggi’s assassination

Khashoggi’s murder initially made Saudi Arabia somewhat of an international pariah — but business executives and politicians, including President Trump, did not stay away from the oil-rich kingdom for long.

“There has been virtually no accountability for the past rights abuses, including the murder of Khashoggi and alleged torture of the women’s rights activists,” Coogle said.

This month’s arrests were in part possible because of “the failure of world leaders and others to hold Saudi accountable,” he added.

May 2018: Arrest of the women who campaigned for the right to drive

Beginning in May 2018, Saudi authorities arrested at least a dozen of the key female activists who campaigned for years for the right for Saudi women to drive, “accusing them of nefarious contacts with foreign parties and branding them traitors in the press,” The Post’s Kareem Fahim wrote.

“The activists did not limit themselves to the driving campaign,” Fahim wrote. “They fought for survivors of domestic violence, women shackled by restrictive guardianship laws and political prisoners. They represented different generations of Saudi women, trying over decades to bend the will of a harshly conservative and often obdurate state. Some garnered international acclaim. Others toiled at home, enlisting Saudi women in a struggle for rights.”

Authorities reportedly tortured some of the women after their arrests. Many of their trials are ongoing.

November 2017: The Ritz-Carlton affair

In November 2017, Mohammed rounded up about 300 Saudi royals, senior officials and wealthy business executives in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in a bizarre affair in which the crown prince accused family members and potential rivals of corruption and pledged to release them only once they had repaid their debts.

It was a move intended to show the public that he was cracking down on corruption — but also a signal to those around Mohammed not to test his power.

In the months that followed, Mohammed arrested other princes and members of Saudi’s elite who questioned his tactics.

September 2017: Clerics and academics arrested

As Mohammed rose within the palace and moved to consolidate power in 2017, Saudi authorities arrested at least 20 prominent clerics and academics known to be critical of the kingdom and supporters of political changes. At the time, state media said those ensnared were working on behalf of “foreign parties against the security of the kingdom,” the BBC reported.