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Tue 26 Nov 2019 08:48 AM

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Saudi crackdown extended as intellectuals detained

Those detained included Fouad Al-Farhan, a prominent blogger; Abdulmajeed al-Buluwi, a writer and political analyst; and Wa'ad al-Muhaya, a self-taught philosophy enthusiast

Saudi crackdown extended as intellectuals detained

Over the past few years, the Saudi government has granted women a slew of new rights and loosened many regulations, welcoming foreign tourists and sponsoring mixed-gender concerts.

Saudi Arabia arrested at least eight intellectuals last week as it extended a crackdown on political dissent that’s sparked condemnation abroad.

Those detained included Fouad Al-Farhan, a prominent blogger; Abdulmajeed al-Buluwi, a writer and political analyst; and Wa’ad al-Muhaya, a self-taught philosophy enthusiast, two people familiar with the arrests said, asking not to be named.

Many of the men held were once active on social media or websites and supported the Arab Spring revolutions of 2011 - a wave of uprisings against autocratic regimes that was viewed as a destabilising threat by the Saudi monarchy. However, they’d largely stopped writing years ago and maintained low profiles, starting small businesses or joining the government.

It’s unclear what charges they face, and the government’s Center for International Communication didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The detentions underline that the conservative Islamic kingdom’s clampdown on domestic criticism isn’t softening as officials move forward with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s plan to overhaul the oil-dependent economy and ease social restrictions.

Over the past few years, the government has granted women a slew of new rights and loosened many regulations, welcoming foreign tourists and sponsoring mixed-gender concerts. Yet politically, a once relatively permissive space for freedom of expression has shrunk. Hundreds of people including activists, academics, businessmen and religious clerics have been detained since 2017.

The murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents last year set off global condemnation, spooking foreign investors and putting a spotlight on the repression of criticism under Prince Mohammed.

But the outcry has largely faded as the government works to restore ties with Western allies. Many investors and executives who cancelled visits after the killing have returned to the kingdom. The arrest of a different group of writers and intellectuals in April -- including two U.S. citizens -- received relatively little attention abroad or at home.

In an interview last year, Prince Mohammed called the arrests a small price to pay in order to “rid the kingdom of extremism and terrorism without civil war, without stopping the country from growing.”

Indeed, many Saudis voice enthusiastic support for the crown prince and his plan, dubbed “Vision 2030.” Others say they live in fear, watching their words carefully.

Last week’s detentions show that even Saudis who steer clear of public criticism can be viewed as threats. Among those arrested was Bader Al-Rashed, a former journalist who worked for one of the government entities under Prince Mohammed’s transformation plan, according to the people. Others include former journalist Abdulaziz Al-Hais and Musab Fuad, a business partner of Al-Farhan, who had stopped blogging about politics and founded an online learning company called Rwaq, they said.