The arrest last month of Sheikh Omar Abdullah al-Muqbel, a professor of Islamic law at Al-Qassim University, is only the latest in a long line of abuses that have made the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia infamous on the world stage for abuses of human rights. Part of a campaign of arbitrary detention of dissidents since 2017, Al-Muqbel’s arrest came after he criticized the official state entertainment authority during a lecture he gave to university students.
The organization Skyline International described al-Muqbel’s predicament as “a continuation of arbitrary arrests carried out by the Saudi authorities against dissidents, as well as a violation of international norms and conventions.” The statement continued: “Saudi Arabia’s attempts to promote itself as a democratic state open to development and international cooperation are collapsing due to the continued suppression of freedoms and the arrest of dissidents.”
Al-Muqbel has a large body of published work in the fields of Islamic law and theology. He has worked as a cleric for many years and has given media appearances discussing the Hadith and the Qur’an. He also has a masters degree in the Sunnah (sayings and teachings of the prophet Muhammad).
While al-Muqbel’s comments represent an attack on the regime from the right, so to speak, in the minds of many this does not detract from the fact that his right to free expression has been illegitimately curtailed.
Al-Muqbel’s comments about the entertainment authority amounted to minor criticisms, accusing the authority of threatening the identity of the country. His remarks were in reference to recent cultural events involving singing, dancing, and exhibitions by artists that offend his religious tastes. While al-Muqbel’s comments represent an attack on the regime from the right, so to speak, in the minds of many this does not detract from the fact that his right to free expression has been illegitimately curtailed. While many do not share his views, they believe in his right to express those views.
Another organization that has voiced support for al-Muqbel is the Islamic group Al Haramain. Al Haramain compared the arrest of al-Muqbel to the case of Sheikh Nasser Al-Omar who was arrested and interrogated last year for calling for political change. Al Haramain also accused the Saudi government of “spreading hatred against certain Islamic countries that do not conform to the policies of the Saudi foreign policy,” presumably a reference to Iran, among others.
The group also condemned the Saudi government for politicizing Islamic platforms—Saudi Arabia is home to the majority of the holiest Islamic sites, mainly in Mecca and Medina. Al Haramain’s criticisms of the Saudi government are essentially religious in nature. On its website, the organization calls for Saudi Arabia to manage “the two holy mosques and Islamic sites in a proper manner that preserves the past and the present image of Islam.”
The arrest of al-Muqbel is just the latest development in a long-running trend of increasing denial of the right to free expression in Saudi Arabia. In 2017, the Saudi regime began a campaign of arrests targeting prominent academics and religious dissidents; individuals such as Salman al-Awda, Nasser al-Omar, Awad al-Qarni, and Ali al-Omari. 2018 was a particularly bad year for Saudi public relations—as the war in Yemen continued to rage, there were a number of high-profile cases involving state-sponsored killings, forced-disappearances, secret trials, and other mistreatment.
Over recent years, critics of Saudi Arabia have become more vocal in their condemnation of the Kingdom’s failure to comply with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (IDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), both of which guarantee the right to the free expression of opinion without coercion or harassment. The Saudi government does not disclose the numbers of people detained for expressing dissenting opinions, so the extent of the problem is possibly underestimated by most authorities.
Women disproportionately feel the brunt of the crackdown on free expression in Saudi Arabia. On May 15, 2018, in the weeks before the much publicized removal of the ban on women driving in the Kingdom, the government arrested several prominent women’s rights activists on grounds of treason, with some human rights groups reporting that the activists have been tortured. Those arrested included Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al-Yousef, Eman al-Nafjan, Nouf Abdelaziz, Mayaa al-Zahrani, Hatoon al-Fassi, Samar Badawi, Nassema al-Sadah, and Amal al-Harbi. Many were detained without charge, and Human Rights Watch has speculated that some of the activists may face up to 20 years in prison.
The crackdown on activists and dissidents in Saudi Arabia is often carried out under counterterrorism legislation.
The crackdown on activists and dissidents in Saudi Arabia is often carried out under counterterrorism legislation. In 2017, the government passed a new counterterrorism law that included criminal penalties of five to ten years in prison for portraying the king or crown prince, directly or indirectly, “in a manner that brings religion or justice into disrepute,” and other acts bearing no clear relation to terrorism. Atheism is also classified as a terrorist offence in the Kingdom.
Almost all of the founding members of the banned Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA) had been jailed by 2018, with activists such as Waleed Abu al-Khair, Mohammad al-Bajadi, and Abdulaziz al-Shubaily given long prison sentences. Non-Islamic worship and adherence to minority denominations of Islam is seldom tolerated by the Saudi authorities. The arrest of Sheikh al-Muqbel for expressing his religious conscience comes from the other end of the ideological extreme to most of these examples; yet in principle it is a continuation of the same worrying phenomenon.
The fact that dissent from all sides is systematically being shut down suggests that this tightening of the thumb screws is not necessarily ideologically driven, but merely intended to suppress any and all opposing views. With Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince pushing to establish the kingdom as a progressive, modern state, such continued repression continues to undermine any such efforts at supposed “reform,” and instead may be damaging its reputation beyond repair.