With Human Rights Watch releasing a statement on 21 March on behalf of Saudi women activists brought to court in Riyadh a week earlier, world attention remains focused, and rightly so, on the appalling treatment the women are receiving at the hands of a Saudi regime determined to crush all dissent.
As the statement argues, the charges against them “appear almost entirely related to their human rights activities…including promoting women’s rights and calling for an end to Saudi Arabia’s discriminatory male guardianship system.” Noted too are credible allegations that the women were tortured in custody. The torture includes electric shock, whippings, sexual harassment and assault. Human Rights Watch and other international rights organisations continue to call for all charges to be dropped and for the women to be immediately released.
It is to be hoped that the attention of the world and the reputational damage being done to the kingdom and its putative leader Mohammed Bin Salman, will cause the authorities to finally free the women. MBS – as he is known – is already under a deep cloud of suspicion over the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
But what of all those others held in Saudi prisons? Let me tell you about five you probably have never heard of. Their stories have been documented by the London-based Saudi human rights organisation ALQYST.
Sulaiman Al-Dowaish, a religious scholar and preacher was arrested on 22 April 2016. He had been tweeting criticisms of Mohammed Bin Salman, the then deputy crown prince and the favourite of his father King Salman. When he ascended the throne in January 2015, Salman gave unprecedented power to his son, at the time just 28 years old. In addition to his title as deputy crown prince, MBS was named the defence minister, the head of the kingdom’s huge Public Investment Fund, and chair of the all-powerful Council for Economic and Development Affairs. He also took over Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest energy corporation.
Al-Dowaish had argued that putting so much power in the hands of one so young was a dangerous decision for the aged Salman to make. “Don’t go overboard,” he advised “entrusting your spoiled adolescent son with further powers without oversight and accountability, or else you must expect a daily calamity from him that will eventually tear down your house.”
Since his arrest, nothing more has been heard regarding the fate of the preacher, neither about where he is being held or the state of his health. It must be assumed however that the frankness of the tweets will have deeply angered Mohammed Bin Salman who has no tolerance for criticism of even the mildest sort.
More puzzling, since there appears no reason for it, is the disappearance of then 41-year-old Khaled Mohammed Abdulaziz. He had travelled with his mother Khadija from Turkey to Makkah for the Hajj pilgrimage on 26 August 2017. On 11 September, Khaled told his mother he wanted to go back to Makkah to visit the Grand Mosque again. The following day, 12 September, Khadija lost contact with her son.
Khadija returned to Istanbul without Khaled. Upon making enquiries at the Saudi consulate, she was told by an official there that her son was “alive and well; he is living, eating and drinking.” That was the last word she had. Since then she has heard nothing.
Equalling puzzling is the case of Abdulrahman Al-Sadhan. On 12 March 2018, officials dressed in civilian clothes and believed to be from Saudi Arabia’s Mabahith secret police arrested him from his work place at the headquarters of the Saudi Red Crescent Authority in Riyadh. They confiscated his telephone before forcibly removing him and taking him to an unknown location. The police did not produce a warrant or give any reason for the arrest. The next day, a group of men dressed in police uniform entered his home by force. Sources reported that they saw the men removing a laptop, a smartphone and other personal belongings.
A relative said: “It’s been a year since he was detained [by] enforced disappearance and we still can’t communicate with him or know anything about him. We are deeply concerned and worried especially with what we’ve been hearing about torture.”
On 15 March 2018 the journalist Turki Bin Abdul Aziz Al-Jasser, was arrested and his electronic devices confiscated from his home. Since then Al-Jasser has completely disappeared. The Saudi authorities refuse to answer any inquiries about him. His family has not been allowed visits or phone calls. The only clue as to why he was taken is that he had been arrested in the past and may have been considered in some way a possible critic of MBS.
The fifth disappeared is Marwan Al-Muraisy. He had worked for several Saudi media outlets, including TV channels Al-Majd and Al-Resalah. His Twitter account had more than 100,000 followers, with his tweets focusing on his areas of specialisation, including digital media and human development. Prior to his disappearance Al-Muraisy had produced more than 30 television programmes, and been a popular guest on shows dealing with technology and social media.
On 1 June 2018, security forces arrested him from his home. Al-Muraisy was taken to an unknown location. To date, his family have been denied any information about him. They have not been able to visit him, phone him, or know anything about his fate. He, like the other four, has simply vanished.
When Sulaiman Al-Dowaish warned King Salman that “you must expect a daily calamity” were he not to rein in his son, the preacher could scarcely have known how prophetic those words would prove to be. By then Mohammed Bin Salman had already dragged the kingdom into what is now a more than four-year-old war in Yemen with horrific consequences for the people of a country that is poorest in the Arab world. That was a harbinger of what was to come.
Together with the United Arab Emirates, MBS launched a land, air and sea blockade of fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member Qatar in June of 2017 that remains ongoing. Later that year, he seized the Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri in Riyadh and forced him on television to announce his resignation (a move that Hariri later reversed when he was safely back in Beirut.)
In November 2017 MBS arrested more than 200 senior businessmen and members of the ruling family and held them at the five star Ritz Carlton Hotel in Riyadh. Although the authorities called it a campaign against corruption, there was no due process but rather a gross violation of the detainees’ human rights that includes serious allegations of torture. Those arrested were released only after agreeing to surrender their businesses together with huge amounts of money in what amounted to a classic Mafia-style shakedown. An unknown number are still being held.
In the spring of 2018, just ahead of the much applauded day when women would be allowed to drive, the crown prince ordered the arrest of the activists who had campaigned for that right. When the Canada’s foreign minister called for their release the Saudis reacted with fury kicking out the Canadian ambassador, calling theirs home, breaking off trade and ordering all Saudi students studying at Canadian universities to return immediately to the kingdom
Then just a few months later, in October, the journalist Jamal Khashoggi was enticed into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, that same consulate where a year previously the mother of Khaled Mohammed Abdulaziz had gone seeking word of her son. Khashoggi was murdered shortly after entering the building and his body dismembered. The CIA has established with a high degree of probability that MBS was responsible for Khashoggi’s killing.
The five disappeared and the women activists are but a few of the thousands languishing in Saudi prisons or in places unknown. Remember them. They are the tortured and the abused, the victims of a regime ruled with apparent impunity by a young prince who knows no limits either to his ruthless ambition or his calculated cruelty.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.