The Holy Kaaba is the tangible centre of Islamic faith, with the royal family of Saudi as the self-appointed custodians of this holy site, mosques, and sacred land. An honorable duty, one would assume, given that Islam is based on the principles of protecting human rights. According to the Quran, life is a divine bestowal on humanity that should be guarded and defended by any means. It is the duty of all Muslims to uphold and protect the human merits and virtues of others. The custodianship is a role to be executed with grace and mercy.
“There shall be no coercion in matters of faith” (Quran 2:256)
Fast forward approximately 1400 years, following 274 years of the Saud family rule, and we have to question what went wrong. In its 2018 World Report, the Human Rights Watch criticized Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over the nations human rights record. Unsurprisingly, the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, along with the arbitrary detention of women rights activists, and the unlawful attacks on civilians in Yemen were the central points of contention in the aforementioned report. As if this needed to be stated out loud, all of these accusations run contrary to the very basic tenets of Islam.
On May 15th 2018, only weeks before the driving ban was lifted in Saudi Arabia, Saudi authorities began a frightening program of arrests of women’s rights activists. Loujain al-Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjain, Aziza al-Yousef, Nouf Abdelaziz, Maya al-Zahrani, Samar Badawi, Nassima al-Saada, and Hatoon al-Fassi were amongst those taken into custody, one after the other. This group is little more than a series of teachers, professors, journalists, activists, and campaigners, all striving for the abolition of the male guardianship system, and campaigning for a women’s right to drive.
Saudi appeared to be on the brink of heralding a new era of modernity, and tolerance to the world. And yet, at the same time, Saudi was arresting and torturing activists who touted the very thing that ‘Vision 2030’ appeared to stand for. Why the hypocrisy?
Their plight sought to support progress, equality, and the new ‘Vision 2030’, a revolutionary reform program promoted by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The Crown Prince was revered by supporters and allies for his supposed drive to create a modern and fair Saudi Arabia. The veil of freedom was gifted to the people of Saudi Arabia, with free mixing in public spaces, cafes, and cinemas, along with the freedom for women to drive, access greater choices in education, job opportunities, and travel. Saudi appeared to be on the brink of heralding a new era of modernity, and tolerance to the world. And yet, at the same time, Saudi was arresting and torturing activists who touted the very thing that ‘Vision 2030’ appeared to stand for. Why the hypocrisy? Could it be that this plan to modernize was really a ruse to consolidate power, whilst simultaneously crushing dissenters? It certainly seems so.
Islamic law was the first law in history to give women their rights, offer the vulnerable protection, and the freedom for individuals to practice their faith undisturbed. And yet, none of these values have been upheld by the current Saudi leadership.
In a hilarious display of irony, King Salman launched what can only be described as Saudi’s answer to Disneyland, in Qiddiyah, a city south of Riyadh. It forms part of the drive to draw in more foreign investment, and promote the ‘Vision 2030’ project. However, there is a paradox to the utopian picture of Disney painted by the Saudi royal family and their marketing team, because around the same time, the sister of Loujain al-Hathloul claimed her sister was being held in solitary confinement, waterboarded, receiving electric shocks, being sexually harassed, and threatened with rape and murder. Mr. Qahtani, the top royal advisor at the time, was reported as being present at Loujain’s torture, along with six other men during the Holy month of Ramadan 2018.
Dare I say it, but Stephen Spielberg’s ‘Minority Report’ springs to mind with this new Saudi style of law, where activists and dissenters are locked up. While Saudi was busy claiming a new age of equality and equity, the Human Rights Watch reported an increase in arbitrary detentions in 2018.
In June 2018, the World Organization Against Torture called for the release of all Saudi activists. The activists’ supposed crimes were reported directly to the King, and all women had been accused of various acts of treason, dubiously defined as ‘disturbing the public order of the state’, ‘exposing its national unity to danger by any criminalization of the Crown Prince, direct or indirect’, or ‘bringing religion or justice into dispute’. Prior to their arrest, the activists were ordered by the Royal Court to cease all contact with foreign media.
Despite these harrowing revelations, the global stage continues to turn a blind eye. Instead, we see Trump’s administration supporting their economic ties with Saudi Arabia. To quote a tweet by Trump in November 2018:
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham was quoted as urging the U.S. to deal with the allegations against the Crown Prince in order to normalize the relations between the U.S. and Saudi, and critics have called for a suspension of the sale of arms to the Saudi government. For the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, however, human lives seem to have little value against the Saudi promise of buying $110 billion worth of U.S.-made arms, according to a CNBC news report.
Back in the U.K., Prime Minister Theresa May was heavily criticized for entertaining Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in March 2018. The U.K.’s refusal to comment on Saudi Arabia caused further offense, and yet, little has been done to alleviate the plight of the imprisoned activists.
After all, why would the Saudi government reform its abuse of women’s rights activists if it is not being brought to task? Islamic clerics have not voiced disapproval from afar, nor heads of government.
After all, why would the Saudi government reform its abuse of women’s rights activists if it is not being brought to task? Islamic clerics have not voiced disapproval from afar, nor heads of government. We hear silence from the U.N. where Saudi holds a seat. Islamic law was the first law in history to give women their rights, offer the vulnerable protection, and the freedom for individuals to practice their faith undisturbed. And yet, none of these values have been upheld by the current Saudi leadership.
Saudi investment in theme parks, the tourism industry, and flagship ‘Vision 2030’ only serves to sugarcoat a rotten apple. The U.S and the U.K. happily masticate while Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al-Yousef, Eman al-Nafjain, Nouf Abdelaziz, Mayaa al-Zahrani, Samar Badawi, Nassima al-Saada, and Hatoon al-Fassi remain in custody, with their location and welfare generally unknown to their families. Is ‘Vision 2030’ an attempt to blanket the genuine voices of change, and distract the global stage from challenging Saudi Arabia’s contradictory autonomy? As far as I’m concerned, the answer is a resounding, YES.
To quote American Egyptian journalist, feminist, and activist, Mona Eltahawy:
As we stand in support with our sisters, our voices will never be silenced. We cannot live in fear. Our weapons of tongue and pen continue to expose the truth. Giving women rights that they are already entitled to under Islamic Law is not true progression. Let it be known that our freedom is not a bargaining chip for the government to yield as a tactic to sow fear.