Saudi Arabia is stepping up crackdown on dissent, rights groups say

Since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman became Saudi Arabia's de facto leader in 2017, the government has arrested dozens of activists, bloggers and others perceived as political opponents. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIRUT (NYTIMES) - Saudi Arabia's long-running drive to muzzle dissent has escalated again in recent weeks with the arrests of several journalists, writers and academics who had not vocally criticised the government in years, according to two rights groups that monitor the kingdom.

At least eight people have been detained since Nov 16, the rights groups said.

Since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman became Saudi Arabia's de facto leader in 2017, the government has arrested dozens of activists, bloggers and others perceived as political opponents, showing almost zero tolerance for dissent even in the face of international condemnation of the crackdown.

Saudi Arabia is preparing for another moment in the international eye next month, when it is expected to take public its flagship state-owned oil company, Saudi Aramco, in what could be the largest initial public offering ever.

But the recent detentions indicate that the prince appears determined to stay the course, as he did after widespread rebukes over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year, the kingdom's military campaign in Yemen and the detentions of several women's rights activists.

Activists said the recent arrests undermined Crown Prince Mohammed's efforts to introduce social changes to the kingdom - or, at least, the international image boost they have given him.

Along with diversifying the economy, the prince aims to open up what is still a highly traditional society by encouraging concerts and movie theatres, promoting tourism, and granting women more freedoms, such as the right to drive.

"It's very clear now that the Saudi government hasn't learned any lessons from the international pressure," said Mr Yahya Assiri, the director of ALQST, one of the rights groups.

"The only thing they've learned is that they can avoid international pressure with sports and entertainment and PR campaigns."

The people arrested recently were "not activists, and they haven't been critical for many years", he said. "It's just repression."

Those arrested over the past 10 days included a female journalist at the newspaper Al Watan, Ms Maha al-Rafidi, who had supported some political prisoners with posts on Twitter, according to Prisoners of Conscience, a rights group that tracks the kingdom.

Another, Mr Fouad al-Farhan, an entrepreneur and blogger who had started a business skills training company, had been detained previously for publicly supporting democratic reforms, but he had signed a pledge to stop his activism and was not currently writing about politics, Mr Assiri said.

In a bid to make peace with the government, some of the others had even publicly come out in favour of Crown Prince Mohammed's Vision 2030 plan for transforming Saudi Arabia's economy, Mr Assiri said.

They included the writers Abdulmajeed al-Buluwi and Badr al-Rashed. Mr Sulaiman al-Saikhan al-Nasser, an academic who had been involved in government cultural initiatives, was also targeted, according to Prisoners of Conscience.

Mr Assiri said that many of those arrested were friends or acquaintances who moved in the same intellectual circles. But it was unclear why some of the others were arrested, the groups said.

Detainees who were swept up in previous crackdowns continue to face solitary confinement and torture in some cases, according to ALQST.

They include a group of women and men who had agitated for women to be allowed to drive before the crown prince lifted the ban last year, some of whom have said in court that they were tortured and sexually harassed in prison.

The Saudi authorities promised an investigation into their allegations, but closed it this spring after saying they had found no evidence of torture.

For all the furore over the Khashoggi killing and the questions raised over the kingdom's human rights record, Saudi Arabia has continued to enjoy support from crucial partners.

The most important of those is President Donald Trump, who has embraced his relationship with Crown Prince Mohammed, refusing to hold him responsible for Mr Khashoggi's gruesome death in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last year, though US intelligence agencies have found that the crown prince most likely ordered the killing.

He has denied doing so.

And while many prominent US executives backed out of a major investment conference in Saudi Arabia that took place after Mr Khashoggi's murder last year, some of the same corporate titans were back at this year's conference.

Some international corporations had stopped doing business with the kingdom, but relations are once again warming.

Another test of the prince's campaign to reform the Saudi economy will come next month, when Saudi Aramco is expected to go public in an offering that analysts have valued at as much as US$1.7 trillion (S$2.32 trillion).

It is not yet clear whether the company will be able to attract international investors to the offering, which Crown Prince Mohammed originally estimated at US$2 trillion.

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