It was just days before Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s March visit to the United States when Loujain al-Hathloul, one of Saudi Arabia’s most high profile feminists, was stopped by security officers as she drove on a highway near her university in Abu Dhabi.
The 28-year-old was taken from her vehicle and spirited away to her home country on a plane.
Hathloul spent several days in prison before being released, and she was banned from using social media or leaving the country as the Saudi heir apparent embarked on his marathon three-week public relations blitz in the United States, where he met with President Trump as well as Oprah Winfrey and others.
The activist’s rendition from the United Arab Emirates, where she was studying for a master’s degree, highlights the contradiction between Saudi Arabia’s public relations campaign touting reform and the reality on the ground for those asking for basic rights for women.
It also demonstrates the close cooperation between the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which together have promoted a model in the region that prioritizes stability and economic development while harshly suppressing political activism.
The details of Hathloul’s forced return were recounted by people with knowledge of the incident, who were granted anonymity because they fear reprisals. Authorities in Riyadh did not respond to requests for comment on Sunday.
Despite apparently complying with Saudi Arabia’s attempts to silence her — Hathloul’s last tweet to her 316,000 followers was on March 12 — she was arrested again last week in what appeared to be a particularly brutal crackdown on female activists in the kingdom.
A total of seven Saudis were detained — five women and two men who had supported their cause, including a lawyer who had represented Hathloul in the past. They were accused of crimes including “suspicious contact with foreign parties” and undermining the “security and stability” of Saudi Arabia, and they have been publicly vilified in pro-government media in what activists have described as a vicious smear campaign.
“Loujain should be celebrated now,” said Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi writer in self-imposed exile in the United States. “This is so unneeded right after the huge effort that MBS [Mohammed bin Salman] made in the United States, presenting himself as a reformer.”
Hathloul’s activism focused on women being allowed to drive and on ending the country’s restrictive male guardianship system, which meant women required permission from a male relative to access many government services.
The movement had some success and had appeared to be in step with Mohammed’s vision to modernize Saudi Arabia.
The kingdom granted women the right to drive last year and guardianship laws were eased. Women can now supposedly access government services and open businesses without a man’s permission, though in practice it is still often requested, women say. A guardian’s permission is still required for women to travel or marry.
But the kingdom’s inching reforms have come alongside a clampdown on activists, with an increasingly oppressive environment for those who call for changes. Human Rights Watch described it as having sparked a “frenzy of fear” for those genuinely engaged in reform.
“This arrest campaign is an arrest campaign against feminism in Saudi,” said one female activist who knows some of those detained. “Even the men who were arrested, they were with us.”
At 2:30 p.m. on May 15, Hathloul’s house was raided and she was arrested in her bedroom, according to Alqst, a Saudi human rights group based in London. She was taken to al-Hair prison, the group said, the same jail where she was held after she was seized in the United Arab Emirates. Those detained have since been transferred to Jiddah, according to human rights groups.
She’s no stranger to detention. Hathloul rose to prominence in 2014, when she got in her car in neighboring Abu Dhabi and tried to drive across the border to Saudi Arabia. She was arrested and referred to a terrorism court but was released before being tried after 73 days in detention.
The following year she stood in local council elections, after a royal decree allowed women to both vote and run for office. However, her name was never added to the ballot.
She was detained again in June 2017 after returning from a family visit to the United States.
Her activism has brought her international recognition. Last year she was photographed alongside actress Meghan Markle, who married Britain’s Prince Harry on Saturday, at a humanitarian summit in Canada. She was ranked 45th on a list of the most influential Arabs in the world by Arabian Business magazine last year.
But it has come at a cost. Saudi Arabia’s Okaz newspaper reported on Sunday that those arrested could face up to 20 years in jail. They have been publicly branded traitors by pro-government media.
Those detained span several generations of Saudi feminists.
Aziza al-Youssef, a professor at King Saud University, has been campaigning for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia for decades. When women signed a petition against the guardianship system, she took it to the royal palace.
Also detained was Aisha al-Mana, a 70-year-old who was among the first to challenge the driving ban, one of more than 40 women who drove in a convoy in Riyadh in 1990, along with Madeha al-Ajroush, a psychotherapist in her mid-60s, who is also now in detention.
“Loujain, Aziza and other activists who use their real identities are very brave,” said the Saudi activist, who has campaigned online anonymously. “They have very supportive families and nice lives but they chose to be the voice for us.”
Just hours after the announcement that the driving ban would be lifted in September, women who had campaigned for that right were called and asked to not comment publicly — even positively.
Speaking before the latest round of arrests, one female activist speculated that there could be an “old camp” trying to counter Mohammed’s reforms. Others disputed that, saying he has a complete grip on power.
“There is no old guard,” Khashoggi said. “He is in total control. What’s happening is unprecedented.” It doesn’t represent the “old” Saudi Arabia, he said, but the “new Saudi.”
Kareem Fahim in Istanbul contributed to this report.