by Janine Jackson
When Saudi Arabia officially lifted a ban on women driving last June, it made for a great photo-op. Time magazine had a video feature in which they rode along with the country’s first women taxi drivers. 60 Minutes had already declared Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman a “liberator of women.” For the New York Times editorial board, the “young and brash leader” is in some ways “just what his country needs,” because “he would allow concerts, and would consider reforming laws tightly controlling the lives of women.” But US media are only slowly coming to acknowledge that beyond the photo-op lies a very different reality.
Journalist Sarah Aziza writes on these issues, among others, for the Intercept, as well as other outlets. She joins us now by phone from Brooklyn. Welcome to CounterSpin, Sarah Aziza.
Sarah Aziza: Thank you so much for having me.
JJ: You actually saw reporters swarming on the photo-op of Saudi women driving. And one can see why: It’s both a symbolic and a material change that seems to say that Saudi Arabia, under the influence particularly of Mohammed bin Salman, is on the road to reform. But subsequent and even previous events should tell us that that’s not really the story here. What should we know about bin Salman as liberator of Saudi women?
SA: Yeah, I would say that it is not the full story. It is true that there are some women—particularly who come from liberal families, middle- or upper-class families—who are enjoying the benefit of these limited reforms, the increased flexibility for women in the workforce. And the ability to drive was no small thing, symbolically or practically.
But on the much grander scale, Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, as we often see him referred to in the press, has ushered in an era of really unprecedented crackdowns and repression of all forms of political speech. But also just a general chill of authoritarianism that rendered even ordinary citizens afraid to speak about the royal family, to discuss their opinions whatsoever when it comes to the reforms that are happening in their society, or even everyday topics.
Whether it’s issues of culture or commerce, there’s just this sense that, yes, there are movie theaters and concert halls people are enjoying attending, but no one there feels the freedom to speak openly about anything anymore, on the issue of women in particular.
It’s perhaps the most monstrous paradox of MBS’s reign so far, is the way that he’s branded himself as a liberator of women. He’s defended to the foreign press that women in Saudi Arabia are equal, absolutely equal, and that he is just here to empower and raise them up.
And in particular, in relation to the women driving, that’s the most perhaps egregious and awful irony, was that practically all the women who had campaigned for the right to drive—some of them dedicating decades of their lives to peaceful protest and demonstration and petitioning of the government to obtain the right to drive, among other rights—they were all in jail when the day finally came, when all of the reporters were swarming these open lots, these choreographed spectacles that look so good on the front pages of newspapers with these smiling women, but in the meantime, the women that really had the legacy of pushing for these reforms were in detention. They’ve not yet faced trial or even formal charges, not yet had access to legal counsel, haven’t seen their family. And we’ve had recent reports in the past few months that several of them, at least, have faced systemic torture and sexual abuse while in detention, at the same time that MBS was using their cause as evidence of his credentials as a reformer.
JJ: When you wrote about this in 2018, you said that one activist said that maybe the crackdown has something to do with the regime not wanting the lifting of the ban to be seen as a reward for that activism. They’d prefer it be presented as a gift from the king.
SA: Absolutely, that’s been one of the themes of bin Salman’s reign, is this absolute top-down, unilateral approach, that any rights or privileges granted to his subjects must be seen as coming directly from him, and a product of his will and his will alone, and that there are no channels, there’s no two-way channel between the people and the government, that they’re not to have expectations of activism or organizing as bringing about any changes or demands. This is not a conversation. This is a patriarchal, top-down granting or bequeathing of rights as he sees fit.
So the locking up of these women journalists was a way, we think, of pre-empting any sort of credit-taking, or any sort of celebration. The women were contacted ahead of time, in some cases, and told not to even tweet congratulations or in praise of the reforms, because that could be seen as attaching themselves to the outcome, and MBS wanted to fully control the narrative for himself.
SA: No, absolutely not. The concept of female political prisoners was pretty unheard of before MBS, and that comes back to, in a lot of ways, the sense of propriety, the patriarchal norms that in many ways harm women so much, but in another sense have these really stringent and old-fashioned ideas of modesty, where women are not meant to be publicly displayed in any way.
But that really has fallen by the wayside, in the case of many of these women activists. They were viciously attacked in the pro-government press, and there was a smear campaign. They were identified as enemies of the state. Rumors of their connections to foreign governments, to Qatar, among other things, were just splashed across the front pages of local newspapers, along with their pictures, which is, again, just such a transgression of modesty norms in the country. So it really just shows a willingness to transgress all normal bounds by MBS in order to push his narrative forward at whatever cost, and victimizing whomever along the way.
JJ: The October 2018 disappearing and presumed murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Turkey was absolutely shocking. And yet the murder itself sort of got swallowed up in debate over how Trump or the US should or would respond to it.
What did you make of the treatment of Khashoggi’s killing? What got lost, do you think, there in media coverage?
SA: I think that what got lost the most perhaps are the long-term implications of allowing MBS to really, in essence, get away with murder. This is a young man who, although there are elements to his reign that may still be tenuous, he’s really consolidated an unprecedented amount of power, and maneuvered his way into the crown prince position.
His father’s very old and ailing, and should this man succeed to the throne, we could be dealing with a Saudi Arabia led by MBS for 50 years to come, for decades, and it’s an absolute monarchy at this point still.
So the implications for millions of Saudis and for the world, as well as just the freedom of press in general, and the violation of just the concept of journalism and dissent—all of these presumably universal principles seem to be just swept aside in favor of Trump and Jared Kushner’s personal relationship with the crown prince, and an unwillingness to perhaps endanger a lucrative arms deal or strategic interests against Iran.
So it’s a really short-sighted approach that was taken to Khashoggi’s death, and it’s really a travesty of justice, and a tragedy for all those who knew him, and for what he represents as a journalist and as a Saudi.
JJ: Well, let me ask you about—and you talked about this—but within Saudi Arabia, outside of Thomas Friedman chatting with a cab driver, we don’t hear much street-level storytelling, really. You reported that many Saudis are themselves “unaware of the government’s crackdown on activists,” like it’s not necessarily something that everyone is talking about, or maybe comfortable talking about.
SA: No, there’s certainly a sense of confusion. There’s a lot of obliviousness, definitely. Apart from the smear campaign against Loujain al-Hathloul and some of the other women’s rights activists back in the summer of 2018, a lot of these arrests and disappearances, they’re emerging through Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International reports and social media, but they’re going unmentioned in the local press.
So there’s a lot of confusion, a lot of lack of awareness, and then, when there is awareness, there’s incredible reluctance to even admit knowing anything about these subjects. Everyone’s worried that even having an interest, even following stories that are critical of MBS, could render them liable to be called enemies of the state themselves, they could be targeted for arrest or stigmatization or suspicion, under this growing sense of a police state, and Thought Police, in a way. And you see that, even the impact on social media: people shutting down their accounts, being unwilling—even their anonymous accounts—to be on Twitter or Facebook anymore, to even click on stories that they think might lead somewhere to a critical story.
And I should just add that Saudi Arabia has been expanding and emphasizing their anti-cybercrime laws that really criminalize any use of media, or propagating any information, that might be seen as portraying the kingdom or the royal family in a negative light. So these are now criminal offenses, and everyone’s just tiptoeing, as far as their information and conversation surrounding any of these issues now.
JJ: It’s amazing, in a way, that activism continues under these circumstances.
Well, finally, outside of the false hope, if you will, that MBS is being portrayed as, where do you see real hope within Saudi Arabia?
SA: I speak to a lot of people, both inside and outside the country, and there seems to be a pretty unanimous opinion that the hope really lies outside of the borders of Saudi Arabia, at this point, whether it’s Saudis abroad who are advocating for their people, or the journalists and activists, human rights groups and foreign governments, who it’s really incumbent upon them to look at the evidence and admit what’s so obviously there, that this is a dangerous leader, that’s he’s taking Saudi Arabia into a really frightening direction, and that there needs to be meaningful sanctions and consequences for him now, rather than later. Each time we let him get away with another violation or offense is another reinforcement, in his mind, that he has an impunity that renders him exempt from the rules.
So, yeah, I’m speaking to even one leading human rights activist from Saudi Arabia, who’s in exile now, self-exile. And she told me, “My only hope is in the international community.” Yet she does have hope. She says, “I believe in my people and I believe in our women. They’ve overcome so much for decades,” So, they won’t be stopped, but it’s absolutely incumbent upon the rest of us to do our part, too.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Sarah Aziza. You can find her recent piece, “Mohammed bin Salman Is Running Saudi Arabia Like a Man Who Got Away With Murder,” on TheIntercept.com, and a related piece, “The Saudi Government’s Global Campaign to Silence Its Critics,” on New Yorker.com. More of her work’s at SarahAziza.com.
Janine Jackson is FAIR’s program director and producer/host of FAIR’s syndicated weekly radio show CounterSpin. Reprinted, with permission, from Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting.