Saudi Arabia: In an age of cosmetic reform, a new wave of arrests of journalists


The Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) is alarmed at reports of the arrest of ten Saudi activists in the span of only six days. Between 16 and 21 November 2019, the Saudi government arrested ten individuals, eight of whom are journalists and bloggers. Noticeably, many of those targeted are intellectuals and some have previously been working in collaboration with the government. 

In a time when the Saudi government is pushing for more cosmetic freedoms, like allowing concerts, sporting events and general entertainment, they do not seem to want to change the real deep-seated issues, like lack of freedom of speech.

Two of those arrested recently are women journalists, namely Zana Al-Shahri, who works for the online magazine Al-Asr, and Maha Al-Rafidi, who works for the daily Al-Watan. Of those arrested, all of the men have been released but there is no news about the two women. The Saudi government’s record of torture and mistreatment of imprisoned womenspecifically, makes this news very worrying. 

Others who were arrested are Wa’ad Al-Muhaya, a well-connected Saudi intellectual and a presenter of a podcast on the Thmanyah online media outlet, Bader Al-Rashed, an author, and journalist at the daily Al-Riyadh, and Abdulmajeed Al-Bulawi, a policy analyst, writer and entrepreneur. All three had joined and worked with Vision 2030, the Crown Prince’s plan for economic reform, which shows that even those who work alongside the government, are not supposed to cross certain lines and face retaliation if they do.  

Amongst those arrested is Fuad Al-Farhan, a former Saudi blogger, and Musab Fuad, a small business owner. Al-Farhan and Fuad are the founder and partner in an award-winning small business called Rwaq, which generally provides professional skills. Another person arrested is Abdulaziz Al-Hais, who writes for several media outlets including Al-Araby.  Writer Abdulrahman Al-Shehri was also arrested on 20 November and then released after the other men on 30 November, reports Saudi human rights group AL-QST. Sulaiman Al-Saikhan Al-Nasser, a banker and publisher who is known as one of the most prominent Saudi philosophers, was arrested even though he has given many lectures in different government-sponsored platforms.  

Over 20 men and women human rights defenders, including writers and bloggers, remain in prison since the mass arrests of supporters of women’s rights which began in May 2018, ahead of the ban on women driving being lifted. They include prominent activists Loujain Al-Hathloul, Samar Badawi, Nouf Abdulaziz and Nassima Al-Sadah. In March and April 2019, 14 writers, lecturers and activists were arrested for publicly criticising the arrests of women’s rights defenders.

The cause of these recent arrests is most probably the opinions expressed by these individuals regarding sensitive issues inside Saudi Arabia, whether it is showing support for wrongfully imprisoned human rights defenders, or speaking out against lack of reform. GCHR calls for real reforms in Saudi Arabia, a country which does not appear to be trying to solve real problems but rather to cosmetically change the face of the nation through so-called modernisation.

Photo credit: AL-QST