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A year of risky activism in Saudi Arabia

Women drivers, reformists and religious minorities experienced "one of the darkest years ever" according to activists.

Last updated: 30 Dec 2013 11:03
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Judges in Saudi are free to hand out sentences based on their interpretations of Sharia law [AP]

While Egypt and Syria took the majority of the spotlight of the upheaval in the Middle East during the past year, Saudi Arabia's government quietly but strongly shut down human rights activists and cracked down on any dissent that remotely threatened the status quo. 

Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently released a 48-page report titled, "Challenging the red lines: stories of rights activists in Saudi Arabia," profiling 11 activists who desrcibed the pressure they face from authorities.

Hala al-Dosari, a Saudi women's rights activist and writer said that 2013 was no different than years passed for political and social activism in the oil-rich Gulf state but that it may have been perceived as a bad one due to the turmoil elsewhere in the region.

"If you compared to our activities to the ones during the 1990s, you will find that they are similar," al-Dosari told Al Jazeera. "The only difference that is noticeable is that the current feedback from the region causes it to be seen as more aggressive but I don't see any change and it feels like the same environment."

Al-Dosari was part of the October 26 campaign that encouraged women to get behind the wheel and break the kingdom's ban on women drivers. Although no major arrests took place that day, Al-Dosari told Al Jazeera back in October that police prepared themselves for major protests.

Toby Jones, a professor of Middle East History at Rutgers University and former political analyst for the International Crisis Group, said that the Saudi government might not necessarily disagree with the grievances of campaigners but that it had to show its unyieldingness in order to keep power.

"It may allow debate and some movement on social issues, but the regime benefits by allowing its allies and adversaries to argue over these things rather than embrace real change," Jones told Al Jazeera. "The regime has a very small legitimate base of support and if it was to give in, I believe the kingdom's rulers fear that Saudi subjects would demand even more," he said.

'Risky business'

Raif Badawi, one of the activists profiled in the HRW report, is the editor and co-founder of the Free Saudi Liberals website, an online platform he established in 2008 to encourage debate on religious and political matters. He was arrested last year and later sentenced to seven years in jail and 600 lashes for setting up the website and for allegedly insulting Islam. Al-Dosari said that what Badawi did was dangerous and made him a easy target.

"Badawi's case has a lot of complicated dimensions but he was fighting a battle alone. Activists should really decide what type of fight they pick. Should I secure my own freedom and risk picking a fight against a big religious community?," she said.

"Activism is a risky business and people should know their environment. Badawi was acting alone and that was problematic. You don't want to start a campaign and suddenly kill your momentum so quickly," al-Dosari added.

Activism from within the Gulf kingdom varies from women's rights to religious rights by the minority Shia community and a host of other causes. These differences aren't always helpful, Jones said. 

"It would be more hopeful if social and political activists in Saudi Arabia identified more with one another … political activists with human rights activists. There are no broad-based social movements... and connections between activist networks are thin," he said. "They are easier to surveil and harass."

Pro-government commentators have criticised some activists for taking what they believe to be the wrong approach to social change. When female drivers were making headlines around the world, Salman Al Dosary, editor in chief of Saudi newspaper al-Eqtisadiah, published an popular editorial titled "Women will drive, just without provocation." 

"When did breaking the rule of law become a measure for receiving rights?" he asked in the article. 

Al Jazeera contacted the Saudi Ministry of Interior's spokesman who said they are unable to comment directly. In October, the Interior Ministry warned those attempting to break the ban on women driving that: "The laws of the Kingdom prohibit activities disturbing the public peace and opening venues to sedition."

Calls made by Al Jazeera to conservative and moderate Saudi political commentators were not returned. 

'I don't expect much change'

The Saudi people were never made aware of their human rights and that culture and environment never existed before, people aren't yet fully exposed to it yet.

Hala al-Dosari, Saudi rights activist and writer

Saudi Arabia does not have a formal penal code, leaving judges free to hand out sentences to activists based on their interpretations of Sharia law.

"The government has created space for extremists to dominate in the courts, in the public sphere, in mosques and elsewhere," said Jones.

Al-Saud, Saudi Arabia's ruling family, benefits from giving the clergy power to control the public sphere, he said, as they provide the family with legitimacy.

"Historically, the al-Saud's relationship with the clergy has been understood as part of a grand bargain … to some extent that is still true. But, today the relationship has shifted and the government prefers the devil it knows, ie maintaining ties to extremist scholars that are content keeping Saudi Arabia autocratic, rather than allow space for others who would argue for a more pluralist and egalitarian political and social order," he said.

Although 2013 may have been hard for Saudi activists like Hala al-Dosari, she is optimistic about what next year holds. "We are learning more and more each year. Remember, the Saudi people were never made aware of their human rights and that culture and environment never existed before," she said. "People aren't yet fully exposed to it yet."

Mikhlif al-Shammari, a fellow Saudi rights and social media activist, reiterated that position, telling Human Rights Watch, "There's a human rights culture growing in Saudi society. People are waking up from the extremist-induced slumber of the past 40 years."

There remains, however, an air of doubt surrounding the future of social movements in the Gulf Kingdom: "It's been a bad year. I don't expect things will improve very much, at least not politically, in 2014," Jones said. 

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Al Jazeera
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