Veteran Arab journalist Abdel Bari Atwan says the recent arrest of prominent scholars in Saudi Arabia is further proof of the recklessness of the country’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman.
Given the current state of political and tribal polarisation in the Gulf, last week’s detention of two well-known reformist Saudi preachers come as no surprise. Detention for both, Salman al-Odeh and Awadh al-Qarni, demonstrates the determination of Crown Prince Muhammad bin-Salman to consolidate his rule and remove any potential obstacle to his planned accession to the throne.
This act mirrors his willingness to throttle any opposition be it from the so-called Sahwa (awakening) – a clerical movement, or even members of the ruling family. There are conflicting theories about why the two sheikhs were detained.
All theories concur that in their public comments, the sheikhs took a more or less neutral stance in the current Gulf crisis. Therefore, they did not overtly take their country’s side in its quarrel with Qatar.
However, in the eyes of the Saudi authorities neutrality is unacceptable and intolerable. They implement an extreme version of George W. Bush’s “if you’re not with us you’re against us” doctrine. As a result, they have been exerting enormous pressure on writers, journalists and other public figures to denounce Qatar and laud the Saudi-led alliance against it.
With us or against us
Last week’s news that Muhammad Bin-Salman and the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin-Hamad, had spoken on the phone indicated a breakthrough in the 100-day-old crisis between the two sides, so it seemed at first.
Accordingly, Odeh duly expressed his joy at the prospect of reconciliation- tweeting: “may God bring their hearts together for the benefit of their people.” The Sheikh’s tweet obviously incurred the wrath of the authorities.
Unfortunately for sheikhs Odeh and Qarni, and for other “neutral” clerics and public figures, the telephone conversation that was supposed to open the door to dialogue, in fact, had the opposite effect.
The call ended up in a completely different path: with each trying to claim the moral high ground and demanding that the other back down; a fresh bout of acrimony and recrimination erupted.
Then, Pro-regime Saudi tweeters, commended by state agencies, proceeded to launch a vitriolic campaign against the clerics, especially Odeh. Later, they justified his detention on the grounds that he had been disloyal to the country by failing to support its stance.
Prior to the arrest of the sheikhs, Prince Abdelaziz bin-Fahd, son of former King Fahd, was also detained. He had been similarly noncommittal about the Gulf crisis, and was also a fierce critic of Muhammad bin-Zayed – Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, de facto ruler of the UAE – Muhammad bin-Salman’s closest ally in the war on Yemen and campaign against Qatar.
Further arrests have followed, with around 20 prominent clerics and other figures – including academics, economists and poets – not all associated with the “Sahwa” movement. Others, including pro-regime journalists, have been banned from writing or using social media.
While not transparently acknowledging the latest arrests, the authorities have sought to cast the detainees as foreign-backed saboteurs and associated them with Qatar, announcing that a group of people acting on behalf of “external parties against the security of the kingdom” were being held.
The state has also been reiterating warnings against the use of social media to promote “terrorist or extremist ideas”, and reminding Saudis that under the law, “harming the state’s reputation or status” constitutes a “terrorist crime.”
Exiled dissidents have called for peaceful protests to be held throughout Saudi Arabia against the deteriorating living conditions to press the authorities to tackle poverty, release political prisoners, and institute reforms.
Despite the repression they will inevitably face, it remains to be seen whether the latest crackdown will deter would-be protestors or prompt them to turn out in greater numbers.
Either way, Muhammad bin Salman is displaying a ruthless determination to punish anyone who fails to show absolute fealty and compliance, or even to actively toe the official line-whatever their standing within the royal family or Saudi society.
Having assumed personal control of power in the kingdom, he acts as an omnipotent ruler. As in his impulsive and ill-considered regional policies, he thinks he has the power to impose his will with little regard for the consequences.
The consequences of such recklessness are predictable and risk back-firing, with seriously destabilising effects for Saudi Arabia and the relationship between the rulers and ruled. Unless urgent measures are taken to tackle the issue, the current crisis may be the prelude to something much bigger.
However, considering the present circumstances, no prospects of such measures being taken is perceivable.