The Dying Optimism of Saudi Arabia’s Liberalization

For a while, there was hope that Saudi Arabia would progress in terms of human rights and freedom of speech. The savage killing of a journalist put an end to these speculations.

Nicholas Chang, Editor

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On June 5th, 2017, over a span of about twenty minutes, Saudi Arabia, along with three other Arab League nations, severed ties with the tiny, peninsular nation of Qatar, under the guise of anti-terrorist action. However, among thirteen demands issued to the Qataris by the Saudi-led alliance, one stands out like a sore thumb: the order to shut down the media network Al-Jazeera, a Qatar-based international news network known for covering the March of the Great Return in Gaza and the Arab Spring, which swept the Middle East and North Africa in 2011. Over a year later, Saudi Arabia’s position towards press freedom has not changed.


On October 2nd, while trying to complete a personal errand involving marriage documents from the Saudi consulate, Washington Post writer and former advisor the the Saudi monarchy Jamal Khashoggi disappeared. After international outcry and investigation by the Turkish government, leaked audio tapes revealed that Saudi nationals had kidnapped, tortured, and killed the journalist, famous for his staunch opposition to the Saudi government.


The desert nation of Saudi Arabia is famous for its adherence to Wahhabism, a conservative, traditional sect of Islam. The country has been criticized for generations because of its dismal track record on human rights. In fact, one well known Saudi, Osama bi

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (Photo by Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images)

n Laden, is credited with orchestrating the 9/11 terrorist attacks. However, with the ascension of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia was thought to be on the road to change. The Crown Prince made international news when he “jailed” several members of the royal family in the Ritz Carlton Riyadh in the name of cracking down on corruption. “MbS,” as he is also known, famously pushed for driving privileges for women. Hailed as a reformer, the 33-year old de facto leader of the staunchly conservative Arab monarchy was seen as a potential vector for positive social change.


However, there’s also a dark side to this supposed progression of Saudi Arabia. For one, the anti-corruption detainment of members of the House of Saud flagrantly violated human rights, and one general was allegedly tortured and killed during his stay. The stunt is now widely viewed as a cheap move to consolidate money and power. Female activists who advocated for the ban on driving to be lifted were jailed. All of this is without mentioning the countless civilian deaths due to Saudi air raids in a Yemeni proxy conflict against Persian Gulf rival Iran.


Oh yeah, that’s right. Saudi Arabia has railed Iran consistently over fostering Islamic fundamentalism. It’s their justification for the Qatari diplomatic crisis, their involvement against the Houthis in the Yemeni Civil War, and their support of Syrian rebels against the autocratic reign of Bashar al-Assad. Yet, the nation uses Sharia law as the basis of its entire judicial system and routinely detains citizens for charges such as homosexuality and unfairly detains members of the Shia minority, in addition to upholding a guardianship system in which women are completely controlled by their male relatives. The Saudis have no problem with radical Islam as long as it’s their radical Islam.


For a while, there were hopes, tenuous hopes, that Saudi Arabia would progress towards the ideal of Western civilization under the auspices of Mohammad bin Salman. Of course, no one expected it to reach that golden status, not in his lifespan, but progress is progress, and progress is good. The brutal murder and subsequent cover-up of a journalist for an American newspaper is the final nail in that coffin. As long as dissent is a prosecutable offense in Saudi Arabia, as long as the blockade on Qatar still stands, as long as Jamal Khashoggi remains unavenged, how can anyone ever see Mohammad bin Salman as a reformer, a torch to lead Saudi Arabia into the modern age? How can anyone still believe in a reformed Saudi Arabia? No one. Not yet.

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