Authorities in Saudi Arabia have arrested a prominent scholar after he criticised the policies of the General Entertainment Authority (GEA) as a threat to the kingdom’s culture, according to a prisoners’ rights group.
In a Twitter post on Tuesday, the Prisoners of Conscience group said Sheikh Omar al-Muqbil, a professor of Islamic law at Qassim University, was detained after a video resurfaced in which he described the GEA’s actions as “erasing the original identity of society”.
“This is a continuation of the arbitrary arrests that have taken place in the kingdom for the past two years, which are aimed at leading scholars, sheikhs and other free thinkers,” the Prisoners of Conscience group said.
Over the past year, the GEA has hosted a number of music stars including Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson and Sean Paul, in an attempt to boost the image of Saudi Arabia globally.
Last year, the authority announced plans to invest $64bn in the entertainment sector during the next decade as part of a programme of social and economic reforms driven by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of the world’s top oil exporter.
The reforms stem partly from an economic motive to increase domestic spending on entertainment and attract Western investment to offset the effect of a slump in the price of oil that began in 2014. Other measures include ending decades-long bans on women driving, cinemas and mixed-gender concerts.
But activists have pointed out that the focus on entertainment is meant as a distraction from the kingdom’s poor human rights record.
At the same time, international rights groups have criticised the Saudi government for still imprisoning activists who had long advocated for the reforms.
Scores of academics, economists, writers and human rights activists have been arrested in recent years in an apparent bid to stamp out dissent and opposition to Prince Mohammed, who has consolidated power with a purported anti-corruption crackdown.
The kingdom also faces widespread international criticism over the assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul almost a year ago, allegedly by members of Prince Mohammed’s entourage, as well as over its long-running war in Yemen.
Earlier this week, Prisoners of Conscience launched a social media campaign under the Arabic hashtag “Two years since the September arrests“, referring to the detention of prominent academics and scholars from the Sahwa (Awakening) movement who had spoken out against government policies.