Saudi Women's Detentions Clash With Crown Prince's Reform Campaign

May 27, 2018
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

For months, we've been hearing about the sweeping reforms launched in Saudi Arabia by its 32-year-old crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman. What's been described as a liberalization program includes lifting the ban on women driving starting next month. So it came as a surprise - to many people, anyway - to learn last week that Saudi security forces had arrested at least 10 activists, most of them campaigners for women's rights. Amnesty International reports four have since been released.

We wanted to understand what seems like a contradiction, so we called Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. He's been living in the United States in self-imposed exile for the past year. He wrote about this latest development in the Washington Post. Khashoggi told me that one of the activists who was detained is in her 60s and another is 70 years old.

JAMAL KHASHOGGI: They are the ladies who participated in the first push for women drive in 1990. And it took everybody by surprise. I mean, it was totally unneeded, unnecessary. They represent no opposition, and they ought to be celebrated.

MARTIN: What are the charges against them, and how serious is what they were charged with?

KHASHOGGI: The charges are serious. They were called traitors, and some of the media - the government media outlets - their pictures were posted on a graph with the word traitor in Arabic splashed in front of their faces.

There's two things that have been unusual for Saudi Arabia. I've been living all my life in Saudi Arabia. To arrest ladies - that is unheard of in Saudi Arabia, and especially ladies 60, 70 years old. Another thing, too, that's weird compared - in my time as an editor of a newspaper, if someone gets arrested, we just report the news. But we don't allow anyone to go and attack him or criticize him or declare him as a traitor.

MARTIN: So you say that this is an intentional effort to publicly shame them...

KHASHOGGI: Yes.

MARTIN: ...And to publicly identify them?

KHASHOGGI: Yes. It's not only them. It is just to make all of us (unintelligible), all of us intimidated. And I found it very ironic. It's totally unneeded. There is no opposition movement in Saudi Arabia. There are independent voices who are calling for reform.

MARTIN: Well, how do you understand this, then? I mean, how do you reconcile this with what we knew or what we thought we knew about the crown prince - particularly given that he had recently been on kind of a tour to the United States and also through some European capitals talking about his reforms? He's given a number of interviews about his intention to allow women to attend sporting events, permitting women to drive starting next month. How do you understand these arrests with this campaign of liberalization that the crown prince has been touting so publicly?

KHASHOGGI: I think the message he's sending to all of us in Saudi Arabia - that I don't allow any form of activism, even if you agree with me, even if you push for reform, and you want women's empowerment, and you want women driving, and you want to limit the authority of the religious establishment and police. You have to do that within me, within the system, within the government.

So the message that had been sent last week - that I don't allow activism, even if it allows with my reform. I am the reformer, I am the giver and I am the one who will lead this country to the future. And I don't need anybody's help.

MARTIN: Is it possible that this is reflective of some kind of a power struggle?

KHASHOGGI: No. No. The power struggle is over. He's totally in control, and he has no one to challenge his rules.

MARTIN: That is Jamal Khashoggi. He is a Saudi journalist living in the United States. He was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C.

Thank you so much for speaking with us.

KHASHOGGI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.