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PoliticsMiddle East

Can Saudi afford muting its critics?

Tom Allinson
August 30, 2020

Saudi Arabia has been cutting contacts between jailed critics and their families. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman could pay for it, if it clouds relations with international allies.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
Image: picture-alliance/abaca/Balkis Press

Saudi authorities have escalated a crackdown on dissent, arresting another family member of former intelligence chief Saad Aljabri this week and severing communication between other jailed critics and their families, the families say.

Authorities had already arrested two of Aljabri's children and his brother in March before he filed charges in the United States this month alleging the Saudi crown prince tried to have him killed.

One of his other son's, Khalid, said on Twitter Wednesday that the latest arrest of Aljabri's brother-in-law was "a blatant effort to terrorize" his family.  

Many other jailed critics have had their regular limited phone calls or visits with family severed in recent months.

The sister of Loujain al-Hathloul, a prominent women's rights activist, said her family was extremely worried that they hadn't heard from Loujain since June 9.

"We don't see why authorities would cut all contact if they didn't have anything to hide," Lina al-Hathloul told DW. "The first time she was held incommunicado, she was being tortured, so I can't think of anything else."

Loujain al-Hathloul
Loujain al-Hathloul's family apparently has not heard from her since June Image: Getty Images/AFP/Facebook/Loujain al-Hathloul

The families of Princess Basmah bint Saud and former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef have also been cut off, according to a source close to the matter. Bint Saud's communications were severed in April after she publicly pleaded to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, popularly known as MBS, for her release.

Salman al-Odah, a reformist cleric arrested in 2017 and who faces the death penalty, has not been heard from since May, according to a recent Bloomberg report.

DW contacted the Saudi communications ministry for comment but received no reply.

A costly escalation?

The crackdown comes at a sensitive moment for Saudi Arabia's relations with allies. Experts are divided as to whether MBS can afford such an escalation.

Increasingly silencing critics could damage the country's relations with the US. On the campaign trail, Democratic Party nominee Joe Biden last year called Saudi Arabia a "pariah" and threatened to stop arms sales to the kingdom. An escalation could harden his position, which would make a difference if he wins the US presidential election in November.

Meanwhile, four US senators have put pressure on President Donald Trump to help secure the release of the family of Aljabri, who helped US intelligence for years. Lobbyists were also engaged to press for the release of Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz bin Salman al Saud in May.

Well of goodwill has 'run dry'

In Europe, Germany's decision on whether to extend a ban on arms sales to Saudi Arabia before it expires in December gives it some leverage in pressing for action on human rights.

Germany suspended those sales in the wake of the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, a crime attributed to MBS that, along with the jailing of activists, tarnished his reputation as a reformer and chilled relations with global investors.

As Riyadh prepares to host the G20 summit in November, the crown prince has an opportunity to restore his reputation. But when the European Parliament convenes after their summer recess, members will call for a response to long-standing requests for the release of Princess Basmah bint Saud and Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz.

Princess Basmah bint Saud
Princess Basmah bint SaudImage: Getty Images/M. Ingram

"If they treat royals like this, their own family, without justice, imagine what's happening with other people," said Eva Kaili, a member of the European Parliament and of DARP, which cultivates parliament's relations with Arab Peninsula countries.

"The crazy situation here is that just talking to officials like those from the European Parliament could result in a charge of treason, or be a reason to be detained in Saudi Arabia," Kaili said. "This is not pointing fingers. This is not giving lectures. This is us wanting to work together on the same principles."

Neil Quilliam, a fellow at the UK-based Chatham House institute, says MBS can't afford the escalation.

"The well of goodwill felt by many towards the young prince and his grand ambitions has now run dry."

"If the rights abuses stopped and prisoners were released, then memories would soon fade and both political and financial investment would likely pick up, but as long as the situation continues or even escalates then the costs to the kingdom will increase," he said.

Arms sales trump human rights

But experts also point to the soaring rates of arms exports to Saudi Arabia in the past decade as a sign that international cooperation on regional security trumps individual human rights cases.

International arms monitor SIPRI reports that Saudi arms imports — mainly from the US, the UK and France — skyrocketed to more than $3.5 billion (€2.9 billion) in 2019, up from $1 billion in 2010. The UK resumed exports to the Saudis in July, while simultaneously sanctioning 20 people accused of involvement in the Khashoggi murder.

"The Saudi government unfortunately can afford jailing its critics and abuse human rights because no one with enough leverage to do so is likely to risk their cooperation with Riyadh on oil and/or regional security for this cause," said Kristina Kausch, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Nevertheless, the silencing of critics still bears a cost.

"Memories fade quickly, but the policy of imprisoning women on charges that appear 'trumped up' and targets critics both home and abroad keeps the issue fresh in the mind of both policymakers and the public," Chatham House's Quilliam said.

Saudi Arabia dismisses criticism over Khashoggi murder