London-based non-governmental organization ALQST, a group that advocates for human rights in Saudi Arabia, claimed that Safar al-Hawali, an influential religious scholar, and three of his sons were detained last week in the kingdom.
These arrests are a part of what appears to be a widening crackdown against clerics, intellectuals, and rights campaigners. Although Riyadh’s official position is that it has no political prisoners, senior officials in the country have said that the “monitoring of activists is needed to maintain social stability,” according to Reuters.
Hawali’s arrest comes just weeks after Saudi Arabia instituted a historical reform in June that made it legal for women to drive in the country. This long-awaited change is one of many sweeping reforms that the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed Bin Salman, has been executing to achieve the Saudi Vision 2030, a strategy that aims to reduce the kingdom’s independence on oil by diversifying its economy.
By implementing Vision 2030, the Crown Prince hopes to create a “strong, thriving, and stable Saudi Arabia that provides opportunity for all… and a tolerant country with Islam as its constitution and moderation as its method.” However, the recent arrest of Hawali and his family members demonstrates that Saudi Arabia will not tolerate all opinions.
Who is Hawali, why was he arrested, and how does this action reflect on Saudi Arabia’s supposed mission to become a tolerant country that practices “moderation?”
Hawali and his sons were arrested after the well-known religious figure published a book that criticized Saudi Arabia’s ruling family, according to ALQST. However, this is not the first time that Hawali has clashed with Saudi authorities. Hawali first rose to prominence in Saudi Arabia as a leader of the Sahwa Movement 25 years ago.
The Sahwa Movement (Awakening Movement) is a faction of Salafism, which believes that “the most authentic and true Islam is found in the lived example of the early, righteous generations of Muslims, known as the salaf, who were closest in both time and proximity to the Prophet Muhammad,” according to a Brookings Institution article.
The origins of the Sahwa Movement go back to the 1950s, when activists from the Muslim Brotherhood, the oldest Islamist political group in the Arab world, arrived in Saudi Arabia to escape the persecution of the Egyptian socialist regime of the time. In the 1970s, disputes between the Muslim Brotherhood and Wahabbism, a conservative form of Islam in Saudi Arabia that insists on the literal interpretation of the Quran, resulted in a cross-pollination of ideas which resulted in the Sahwa Movement.
In the nineties, not only did Hawali and the Sahwa Movement agitate to bring democracy to Saudi Arabia, they also accused the Saudi royal family of corruption, social liberalization, and colluding with the West. Hawali was imprisoned in a crackdown on Islamists around the same time, but he was eventually released after muting his criticism.
However, Hawali’s critical and oppositional views did resurface again. After the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, Hawali endorsed an anti-U.S. “jihad” narrative. But, he also denounced Islamist militant attacks on Westerners in the kingdom.
The media popularity of Sahwa “celebrities,” like Safar al-Hawali, Salman al-Ouda, and Awad Al-Qarni, has diminished in recent years due to a decreasing amount of social support for their cause. The Gulf War, 9/11 attacks, and the Arab Spring also played a critical role in weakening the Sahwa Movement, because they adversely affected the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the Muslim Brotherhood. The Sahwa Movement, which is influenced by Muslim Brotherhood ideologies, has been unable to escape the blowback.
In 2014, Saudi Arabia dealt the Muslim Brotherhood a big blow when it announced in a royal decree that “belonging to intellectual or religious trends or groups that are extremist or categorized as terrorist at the local, regional or international level, as well supporting them, or showing sympathy for their ideas and methods in whichever way, or expressing support for them through whichever means, or offering them financial or moral support, or inciting others to do any of this or promoting any such actions in word or writing” would be punishable by a prison sentence “of no less than three years and no more than twenty years.”
This decree marked a great departure from Saudi Arabia’s previous stance on the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that has been an entrenched part of Saudi society and the Saudi state for many years. Not only did the royal decree endorse the Egyptian designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist movement, it also expressly forbade people from showing sympathy for the organization. But more importantly, the royal decree threatened any groups that were affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, such as the Sahwa Movement.
The severing of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, accused of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and other extremist organizations, is yet another move that has emphasized that the Muslim Brotherhood is no longer welcome in the kingdom. The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt also severed ties with Qatar over these claims, thus demonstrating that the Muslim Brotherhood, and its ideologies, are increasingly unwelcome in the Arab world.
But what happens when “security concerns” are used to limit the activities of more than just nefarious groups in Saudi Arabia? The arrest of 17 prominent women’s rights activists in the lead up to the official lifting of the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia on June 24, has been widely seen an attempt by the Saudi authorities to intimidate the kingdom’s small activist community.
The arrest of prominent figures and activists in Saudi Arabia serves as a stark reminder that change in the kingdom will only come from the top. Despite all the seemingly forward-thinking rhetoric that has been publicized recently, it does not seem as if there is a place for activism in Saudi Arabia that is not in line with the vision that the Crown Prince has for his country.
However, how long can Saudi Arabia continue to crack down on the voices of peaceful dissent and maintain forward momentum in the seemingly contradictory vision of making Saudi Arabia a more modern, more moderate country? More than 60 percent of the kingdom’s population is under the age of 30, and thanks to the internet and technology, not to mention the thousands of students studying in U.S. universities, they have unprecedented access to the world. It will only be a matter of time until the tide changes and Saudi Arabia’s youth refuses to remain unheard.
If Saudi Arabia does not create a space where its youth can share its ideas and contribute to the country in a positive way, the disenfranchised masses may well look for another way to make their voices heard, and then it might be a case of “too little, too late.”