A pig with lipstick would have a better chance of winning a beauty contest than Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) succeeding in his recent charm offensive. These include organizing music concerts where hundreds of thousands of men and women freely mingle; Halloween parties, the Hindu festival of Diwali and Christmas celebrations (‘Jingle All the Way: How Christmas is becoming more accepted in Saudi Arabia,’ is how ArabNews headlined its story). Celebrating Mawlid (the Prophet’s birthday), however, is forbidden!
There are only a few Christians—mainly Westerners and perhaps some Filipino workers in the kingdom. Christmas celebrations were not held to appease the Filipinos; they were held to pander to Westerners as part of MbS’ attempt to present a ‘moderate’ image of himself.
As the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, his policies have been an unmitigated disaster. From the brutal war that he as defence minister of Saudi Arabia unleashed against Yemen in March 2015 to the siege of Qatar in July 2017 to the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018, every policy has come to haunt him.
MbS has kissed and made up with Qatar but the Yemeni war continues since the Ansar-Allah fighters are not prepared to let MbS off the hook so easily. They are closing in on the city of Ma‘arib, having already liberated the crucial port city of Hodaydah. The Saudi rout will be total once Ma‘arib is liberated from the clutches of Saudi-backed mercenaries.
It is, however, the brutal murder of Khashoggi that hangs around MbS like a foul smell. Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan has much to do with it. He has kept the issue alive by holding a trial in absentia for Saudi agents that are believed to have carried out the gruesome murder. They had arrived in Istanbul and then left the same day. Their activities were monitored by Turkish intelligence and their conversations recorded inside the Saudi Consulate that fateful day of October 2, 2018.
Khashoggi had entered the consulate never to be seen again. There is speculation that after strangling him to death, his body was chopped up and then dissolved in acid. Such a horrendous crime could not have been carried out without direct orders from MbS (he rightly earned the epithet, Mr. Bone Saw!). Even the American CIA has said he was responsible for Kashoggi’s brutal murder.
MbS has allowed massive music concerts in the kingdom to distract attention from his crimes, far too many to whitewash them so easily. He hopes that the concerts will also assist in his campaign to present a moderate and modern image abroad. Perhaps, but his headlong pursuit of vulgarity at home is likely to face opposition.
He has tried to reach out to both Iran through Iraq, and to Turkey more directly. Several rounds of talks have taken place in Baghdad between Saudi and Iranian officials to explore ways of improving relations. Limited trade activities have also resumed but diplomatic relations, broken by the Saudis in January 2016 after the brutal beheading of Shaykh Nimr al-Nimr, remain suspended. There were massive protests in Tehran following Shaykh Nimr’s execution in which some protesters threw stones causing damage to the Saudi embassy.
With Turkey, MbS is hoping to patch up but he wants the government of President Erdogan to drop charges against the Saudis who were all closely linked to MbS. While under tremendous economic pressure because of the collapsing lira, improvement in relations with Saudi Arabia will bring in much-needed cash. Erdogan, however, will find it difficult to justify dropping charges to his domestic support base. He has already lost the support of Turkish masses primarily because of deteriorating economic conditions. Erdogan cannot afford to lose more support to get MbS off the hook.
Besides, Turkish-Saudi differences run much deeper. The Bani Saud had conspired with the British to undermine the Ottoman State and drive them out of the Arabian Peninsula about 100 years ago. The Turks have long memory; they are unlikely to forgive the Najdi Bedouins for their treachery by aligning themselves with British colonialists. At a time when Turkey—or more accurately Erdogan—harbours illusions of reviving the Ottoman Empire, playing second fiddle to an upstart Saudi is certainly not his idea of making Turkey great again!
And then there is the spate of executions—886 since 2015—when Salman bin Abdelaziz became king. Those executed included minors and women, according to the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR), as reported by the
Arabic-language Mirat al-Jazeera news website on December 12. The ESOHR further revealed that those executed included 12 minors and 20 women, and 41 foreign nationals who had been behind bars in Saudi Arabia.
As if this gory record was not bad enough, there are thousands of political prisoners languishing in Saudi prisons. These include leading ulama, academics, human rights activists—men and women—as well as lawyers. Yes, lawyers who had the temerity to represent human rights activists in Saudi kangaroo courts.
Since there is no codified law in Saudi Arabia, verdicts are handed down capriciously. Judges often pander to the whim of the ruler, in this case, MbS. They want to please him rather than deliver justice. Conditions in Saudi prisons are appalling. Torture and abuse are rampant. Thousands of political prisoners languish in horrible conditions. Some have died due to lack of medication as well as torture.
This was the case of the prominent sheikh and activist, Musa al-Qarni who “died” in Jeddah’s notorious Dhahban prison, according to a report released on October 16. Sheikh Salman al Awda, another prominent scholar, has languished in prison since September 2017 with prosecutors demanding the death penalty. His crime was that he prayed to Allah to reconcile the hearts of Saudis and Qataris at a time when MbS had launched his crusade against the tiny neighbour.
The Saudi upstart has now kissed and made up with the emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. Sheikh al-Awda, however, continues to suffer the indignity of incarceration exacerbated by torture, deprivation of medications and prohibition on visits by family members.
The case of women activists and writers is equally grim. While the Saudi regime claims to have ‘granted’ permission for females to drive, many activists that called for lifting such restrictions were arrested and thrown in jail. These include Loujain al-Hathloul, Nouf Abdulaziz, Eman al-Nafjan, Nassima al-Sadah, Mayaa al-Zahrani and Samar Badawi. Almost all of them were arrested in 2018, the year the Saudi regime announced to much fanfare that it was lifting driving restrictions on female drivers. They faced vague charges of ‘endangering state security’!
While others have since been released, even if on probation, Samar Badawi continues to languish in prison. Her crime? To defend human rights, demand the right for women to vote even under the restrictive conditions in Saudi Arabia, and an end to ban on women driving. These can hardly be considered revolutionary demands yet according to Al-Qst, the UK-based Saudi human rights organization, Badawi was arrested in an armed police raid on her home. She is currently held in the notorious Dhahban Central Prison in Jeddah.
Her other ‘crime’ is that she is the sister of the imprisoned Saudi blogger Raif Badawi. The rights group also stated that Badawi and other activists have been subjected to “severe and brutal torture and sexual harassment” in detention including beatings with a metal rod. She was hauled before the criminal court for a secret trial on February 19, 2020. No international observers were allowed to b present. According to the BBC, Badawi again appeared in court in November 2020 but no information on her charges has been made public so far.
So much for MbS’ (Mr. Bone Saw’s) reforms and policies of moderation!