After the crackdown in Saudi Arabia, what could come next?
As three popular clerics could be executed at any moment, analysts warn increased repression may fuel further dissent.
On April 23, the Saudi government executed 37 people on terrorism charges and, according to reports, crucified one of them as a “deterrent” to the public.
The largest mass execution in the kingdom since January 2016, it included at least 33 members of the Saudi Shia minority. Eleven had been convicted of engaging in espionage for Iran.
Weeks later, three Saudi Sunni scholars linked to al-Sahwa, or Awakening, movement – Salman al-Awdah, Awad al-Qarni and Ali al-Omari – were reported to have been placed on death row and set to be executed after Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting which ended on Monday.
“While these kinds of repressive measures may work in the short run, they typically serve the exact opposite purpose by prompting more dissent and sowing more discord and division in society,” Elisabeth R Myers, a Washington, DC-based law professor and editor of Inside Arabia, told Al Jazeera. “The crackdown might galvanise a popular movement as we have seen in Algeria or Sudan over the long haul.”
Given Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (commonly known as MBS) pattern of unstable political behaviour since his appointment in June 2017 as heir apparent, his future rule could be fraught with challenges of legitimacy and credibility.
The relatively successful uprising in Algeria that saw the overthrow of Abdelaziz Bouteflika and the protests in Sudan have raised concerns among the ruling elite in Riyadh about the eruption of another Arab Spring.
Since King Salman assumed power in early 2015, discontent among Saudi Shia Muslims has simmered over the government’s treatment of the minority as “second-class citizens“, according to Human Rights Watch.
But calls for change are also growing among Sunni critics of the current leadership, particularly from figures affiliated with the Sahwa, a movement inspired by the teachings of the Muslim Brotherhood that supports non-violent political reforms in the kingdom.
Salman al-Awdah and Awad al-Qarni, two of the Sunni clerics reportedly slated for execution in the coming days, are credited with being key intellectual forces behind the reform movement.
“The government carried out those speedy executions [in April] to deter dissidents from being inspired into action by the Algerian and Sudanese revolutions and warn the public not to heed calls for protests by the overseas-based opposition,” Mohammed al-Qahtani, a former government adviser and London-based Saudi opposition activist, told Al Jazeera.
I am always shocked at how little parts of the Saudi society hear about what is actually going on in their country with respect to abuses of fundamental freedoms and human rights, effectively drowned out by the superficial indications of reform the regime touts.
Acts of repression, coercion and intimidation often amount to human rights violations. Experts have said that authoritarian rule is unsustainable in the long term if “path dependency” on external support is disrupted – in Saudi’s case from the Trump administration.
“In case Trump fails to win re-election in 2020, I am not at all sure the next American president will put up with or turn a blind eye to the continuation of such authoritarian policies,” Myers explained.
“This is partly because anti-Saudi public opinion is mounting in the US with each atrocity attributed to Mohammed bin Salman, including the continuing Saudi-led war crimes in Yemen, while many of the candidates running for office are also indicating they will walk it back.”
On November 20, US President Donald Trump issued a statement of support for MBS, which helped him to survive the Khashoggi scandal with impunity in the face of growing calls for his demotion or replacement.
Lingering opposition as new movements build support
As the Saudi government intensifies its security campaign and crackdown on Shia dissidents and Sahwa reformists, there is lingering opposition to MBS’ succession and support for his 76-year-old uncle Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz as a better alternative.
“They want to scare into conformity proponents of Prince Ahmed as an alternative to Prince Mohammed among the elite and the public, as preparations for the transfer of power to MBS are going forward,” said al-Qahtani.
On November 19, a day before Trump’s statement on the Khashoggi affair, Reuters reported in an exclusive scoop that dozens of members of the House of Saud had been trying to block MBS’ ascension to the throne, instead setting their eyes on Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, King Salman’s full brother.
A critic of the young crown prince and his unconventional policies, bin Abdulaziz was one of the three people on the 34-member Allegiance Council – the state body in charge of deciding Saudi Arabia’s future king – who opposed his nephew’s succession to the leadership.
In October, his abrupt return to Saudi Arabia after a two-and-a-half month stint in London stirred speculation about the possible replacement of MBS in the wake of the Khashoggi fallout.
Other than the religiously oriented Sahwa movement and politically motivated push for the enthronement of Prince Abdulaziz, secular campaigns for greater rights and liberties in Saudi Arabia are gaining momentum.
Saudi women’s rights activists such as Loujain al-Hathloul, Samar Badawi and Eman al-Nafjan have spearheaded an internationally acclaimed fight for the right to drive and the abolition of the male guardianship system, which requires women to secure the consent of a close male relative – the supposed guardian – for any critical life decisions.
Along parallel lines, an opposition campaign dubbed “Freedom Movement of Arabian Peninsula People” emerged following the Khashoggi murder. It advocates for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy and an end to human rights violations.
“I am always shocked … at how little parts of the Saudi society hear about what is actually going on in their country with respect to abuses of fundamental freedoms and human rights, effectively drowned out by the superficial indications of reform the regime touts,” said Myers.
Meanwhile, MBS has promised structural reforms to transform Saudi Arabia into a post-oil economy under the so-called Vision 2030.
Yet, Riyadh’s confrontational regional policy under his influence, which has manifested itself in a tough stance against Iran, sustained military intervention in Yemen and a continued blockade of Qatar, is affecting Saudi domestic politics.
The crown prince “has spent years making it clear that the kingdom’s transformation should occur at the tempo and in the manner that the next Saudi king sees fit”, said Giorgio Cafiero, the head of Gulf State Analytics, US-based geopolitical risk consultancy.
“From his perspective, domestic dissent imperils the prospects of Vision 2030 while the perceived regional threats remain high,” he told Al Jazeera.