When I speak of the fear, intimidation, arrests and public shaming of intellectuals and religious leaders who dare to speak their minds, and then I tell you that I’m from Saudi Arabia, are you surprised?
With young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s rise to power, he promised an embrace of social and economic reform. He spoke of making our country more open and tolerant and promised that he would address the things that hold back our progress, such as the ban on women driving.
But all I see now is the recent wave of arrests. Last week, about 30 people were reportedly rounded up by authorities, ahead of the crown prince’s ascension to the throne. Some of the arrested are good friends of mine, and the effort represents the public shaming of intellectuals and religious leaders who dare to express opinions contrary to those of my country’s leadership. The scene was quite dramatic as masked security men stormed houses with cameras, filming everything and confiscating papers, books and computers. The arrested are accused of being recipients of Qatari money and part of a grand Qatari-backed conspiracy. Several others, myself included, are in self-exile and could face arrest upon returning home.
It anguishes me to speak with other Saudi friends in Istanbul and London who are also in self-exile. There are at least seven of us — are we going to be the core of a Saudi diaspora? We spend endless hours on the phone trying to understand this wave of arrests that have included my friend, businessman and thoughtful Twitter personality Essam Al-Zamil. It was just last Tuesday that he returned home from the United States, having been part of an official Saudi delegation. That is how breathtakingly fast you can fall out of favor with Saudi Arabia. It is all quite shocking. But this has not been business as usual in my country.
In 2003 and again in 2010, I was fired from my job as editor in chief of a “progressive” paper, Al-Watan. During the years in between, I served as media adviser to Prince Turki al-Faisal, the Saudi ambassador to Britain and then the United States. Perhaps it seems odd to be fired by the government and then serve it abroad. Yet that is truly the Saudi paradox. In the starkest terms, Saudi Arabia is trying to moderate the extreme viewpoints of both liberal reformers and conservative clerics. And the arrests span that spectrum.
Why would this climate of fear and intimidation be so prevalent when a young, charismatic leader is promising long-awaited reforms to spur economic growth and diversify our economy? The crown prince is popular, and his reform plan was supported by most of the 30 clerics, writers and social media superstars who were rounded up in the middle of the night.
In recent months, Saudi Arabia has instituted several new and extreme policies, from full-throated opposition of Islamists to encouraging citizens to name others to a government blacklist. Those arrested were on that list. Columnists close to the Saudi leadership repeatedly demanded that Islamists be “eradicated.” It’s no secret that the crown prince despises the Muslim Brotherhood, yet it is actually a strange contradiction to identify a person as a Muslim Brotherhood activist. I always found it ironic when a Saudi official bashes Islamists, given that Saudi Arabia is the mother of all political Islam — and even describes itself as an Islamic state in its “ Higher Law.” (We avoid the term “constitution” because of its secular interpretation and often say that the Koran is our constitution.)
Regardless of who is being targeted, this is not what Saudi Arabia needs right now. We are going through a major economic transformation that is supported by the people, a transformation that will free us from total dependence on oil and restore a culture of work and production.
This is a very painful process. Mohammed bin Salman is best served by encouraging constructive, diverse opinions from public figures such as Essam and other economists, clerics, intellectuals and business people who have instead been swept up in these arrests.
My friends and I living abroad feel helpless. We want our country to thrive and to see the 2030 vision realized. We are not opposed to our government and care deeply about Saudi Arabia. It is the only home we know or want. Yet we are the enemy. Under pressure from my government, the publisher of one of the most widely read Arabic dailies, Al-Hayat, canceled my column. The government banned me from Twitter when I cautioned against an overly enthusiastic embrace of then-President-elect Donald Trump. So I spent six months silent, reflecting on the state of my country and the stark choices before me.
It was painful for me several years ago when several friends were arrested. I said nothing. I didn’t want to lose my job or my freedom. I worried about my family.
I have made a different choice now. I have left my home, my family and my job, and I am raising my voice. To do otherwise would betray those who languish in prison. I can speak when so many cannot. I want you to know that Saudi Arabia has not always been as it is now. We Saudis deserve better.