How Saudi Arabia's Reforms Mask Political Oppression

Saudi Arabia is radically, and rapidly, transforming. Much has been made of the sweeping reforms instituted in the past few years–from from the lifting of the ban on women drivers to the inauguration of the Kingdom’s first movie theater–driven by the young Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. Thomas Friedman has touted “MBS”’s potential to turn the entire Muslim world away from extremism; Donald Trump lauded him as a “great friend” and “more than a crown prince.” At home, many Saudis, young and old, express disbelief, and cautious hope, about the sudden transformations. Across the Kingdom, a nascent sense of national pride–carefully cultivated by the Kingdom’s all-new General Cultural Authority and its McKinnsey-branded “Vision 2030” scheme–is taking hold.

Yet this “progress” has not come democratically. Under MBS’s aggressive leadership, the Saudi government has used authoritarian–and often ruthless–means to achieve its modernizing ends. Saudi activists and cultural critics have been repeatedly silenced through government propaganda, censorship, and detentions. “The Saudi government has never tolerated much free speech or dissent,” said Hiba Zayadeen, chief researcher on Saudi Arabia for Human Rights Watch, “but under MBS, the suppression has reached unprecedented levels.”

In May 2018, just weeks before the lifting of the driving ban, Saudi authorities arrested many of the country’s most prominent women’s rights advocates, and followed with a state-sponsored media campaign accusing them of treason. The arrests triggered a wave of terror in Saudi Arabia’s beleaguered activist community, prompting many to fall silent on their calls for gender empowerment and political freedom. Sarah Aziza traveled to Saudi Arabia to investigate the impact of MBS’s leadership on the lives of women, and activists, in the Kingdom. There, she found a population weighing the question–whose reforms, and at what cost?