The not-so-new Saudi Arabia


For all the hype about the “new Saudi Arabia” — women drivers, movies, clerics put in their place, cooperation with Israel — the oil kingdom is deeply conservative and brutally authoritarian. No one should confuse it with the land of the free.

A case in point is the death penalty sought by prosecutors for five political activists. Among the five is Israa al-Ghomgham, a Shiite in the majority-Sunni kingdom, arrested for a non-violent offense. If sentenced, she would be the first female human rights activist to be put to death in Saudi Arabia, according to rights groups.

“Any execution is appalling, but seeking the death penalty for activists like Israa al-Ghomgham, who are not even accused of violent behavior, is monstrous,” Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “Every day, the Saudi monarchy’s unrestrained despotism makes it harder for its public relations teams to spin the fairy tale of ‘reform’ to allies and international business.”

It seems that for every driver license given to a Saudi woman, the regime arrests two women’s rights activists. That was behind Canada’s criticism this month: “Canada is gravely concerned about additional arrests of civil society and women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia,” the foreign ministry tweeted.

In response, the Saudi government expelled Canada’s ambassador and recalled its own back to Riyadh. It froze all new trade and investments with Canada and suspended the state airline’s flights in and out of Toronto.

Meanwhile, in Yemen, Saudi Arabia continues its war against Iran-backed Houthi rebels, deliberately targeting civilian infrastructure. Over the weekend, the United Nations blamed Saudi-led forces for bombing raids that killed 22 children, plus others. More than 10,000 people have been killed in the conflict so far, which Saudi Arabia is pursuing in its regional rivalry with Iran. Thousands of Yemenis have died of cholera. The United States supports Saudi Arabia in the conflict.

At the center of this “new” Saudi Arabia is Crown Prince Mohammed bin Sultan, or MBS. “MBS is the kind of prince that Machiavelli might conjure,” David Ignatius wrote in The Washington Post. “He’s a big, fast-talking young man who dominates a room with the raw, instinctive energy of a natural leader.”

The crown prince, 32, has launched Vision 2030, a glitzy plan to reduce Saudi Arabia’s dependence on oil, diversify its economy and develop public service sectors. But if the prince’s war against Yemen has led to muted handwringing in the West, his treatment of Canada led to head scratching and perhaps a distancing from the kingdom. No amount of glitz can obscure the brutal doings in Saudi Arabia. Congress and the administration need to speak out.

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