The Guardia | Dilip Hiro: In June, when the ban on Saudi women driving ended, it was portrayed around the world as part of a modernising, liberalising agenda by the new crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. Yet the authorities ordered female activists not to speak out in its favour. Their blunt message was that what was being offered was the gift of King Salman and his crown prince son, and not a result of the campaign by female activists. In fact, the government had arrested 11 of these activists a month beforehand. Though four were released, the remaining seven had led a petition demanding that the female guardianship system – which treats adult women as legal minors – be abolished. They remain in detention without charge, but could face up to 25 years in jail.
In this way, what happened was nothing to do with reform but more like business as usual. In many ways the crown prince has already been more despotic than previous rulers, so the murky events in Istanbul surrounding the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate should not be quite as shocking as they may have first appeared.
In the summer of 2017, 30 Saudi clerics, writers and intellectuals were jailed for expressing their opposition to the policies of the Royal Palace driven by Bin Salman. It was then that, sensing his arrest was imminent, Khashoggi fled to Washington. An eminent journalist and editor for 30 years, he had been banned from publishing articles or appearing on TV in December 2016 after his criticism of US president-elect Donald Trump.
In his opinion articles in the Washington Post, he lambasted Riyadh’s diplomatic and commercial blockade of Qatar, its forcing of Lebanon’s prime minister Saad Hariri to resign (later revoked), and the crackdown on dissent and the media.