Lessons from the Saudi “Spring”

by Christoph Wilcke

On March 11, 2011, Saudi Arabian activists called for a "Day of Rage" wishing to bring the rising tide of protest to the kingdom. Only one person showed up. But underneath the quiet surface, some things have changed in Saudi Arabia and dissent is brewing. One significant change is that activists can, sometimes successfully, challenge arbitrary detention in administrative court. The second change is that in order to avoid such challenges, the security services now level formal charges against detained dissidents and bring them to trial for their activism. In a country without written criminal law, forcing the government to submit to judicial process gives dissident grievances a legitimate platform.
The official Saudi response to the attempted protests showed that the government would not cede an inch of political space to popular calls for reform, choosing instead in February and March 2011 to placate Saudi citizens by doling out an estimated $135 billion in subsidies. The ruling Saud family, whose senior members occupy not only the throne but also key ministries and all provincial governorships, clamped down early on dissent. But for all government efforts to project an air of normality and suppress protests, popular displays of discontent continue.
The legal treatment of protesters reveals that the courts remain pliant to political will despite King Abdullah's judicial reform project-- but subjecting dissidents to a judicial process is a significant gain for the latter who have a platform to defend their rights to peaceful expression, assembly, and association. In February 2011, security forces arrested the first protesters, a group of people who intended to establish the country's first political party, and other intellectuals who advocated for political reform in a series of petitions issued that month. In March, ahead of the "Day of Rage" that had been announced on Facebook, the interior ministry and the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, the highest religious body tasked with interpreting Islamic law, issued a ban on all protests. Over the following months, more and more protesters in the heavily Shiite Eastern Province who defied the ban landed in jail. In March, and again in December, peaceful protesters in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, and Qasim, a northern province, were also jailed. In May and June, authorities arrested women who drove automobiles to protest the kingdom's informal prohibition on women getting behind the wheel.
Arresting dissidents is not new in Saudi Arabia. In the past, Saudi Arabia's feared secret police, the mabahith, have locked up thousands of suspected militants as well as individual peaceful reform activists. In some cases, they pretty much threw away the key. In others, the detainees have been released after the authorities thought they had served sufficient time -- conditional on repentance and a promise not to repeat the supposedly offensive activities. There was no judicial process.
What is new is that activists arrested in 2011 either for peaceful protest or written expression of dissent now are formally charged and sometimes tried in court. This is a small victory resulting from increased pressure from protesters and activists, as well as judicial reforms begun by King Abdullah in 2007. Abdullah ordered specialization of Sharia courts dividing them into criminal, civil, family, commercial, labor, and traffic courts, and added appeals courts. He also ordered the codification of criminal law -- however with no tangible progress to date -- and poured millions of Saudi Riyals into increasing and training judicial officials.
Ending arbitrary detention was the central demand of initial, small street protests in the Eastern Province and in Riyadh in 2011, and had been a longstanding concern of isolated activists. The former judge, and lawyer, Sulaiman al-Rashudi in 2006 and 2007 collected powers of attorney for detainees intending to sue the mabahith before the Board of Grievances, an administrative court, over arbitrary detentions -- until he was arrested in February 2007.
That year, King Abdullah declared judicial reform, with new and more streamlined courts and administration, a central pillar of his reforms. In 2009, the new Specialized Criminal Court began trials for hundreds of long-term detainees accused of militancy. In 2007, the mabahith could still arrest lawyers they considered a threat, or ignore verdicts by the grievances court, but the numbers and the organization of petitioners have grown. Since mid-February, the Saudi Association for Civil and Political Rights (ACPRA) has filed over two-dozen petitions with the grievances court. In previous decisions, the court has sided with the petitioners, for example, ordering the release last June of Thamir al-Khadhr, a human rights activist and student detained since March 2010 without charge.
Pressure through court cases and the king's judicial reforms have led the mabahith to initiate a semblance of legal process. Most activists arrested in 2011 have faced some formal charges and trials. This positive development has neither prevented arrests, nor precluded convictions, but it has starkly set out the judicial interpretation of relations between ruler and ruled, and defined what is considered a crime in Saudi Arabia given the lack of a written criminal law.
Here are some acts that the court has suggested are criminal:
  • Muhammad al-Bajadi, arrested in March 2011, is being tried for being a member of ACPRA, a peaceful, but unlicensed, rights organization.
  • Abd al-Aziz al-Wuhaibi, arrested in February 2011, was convicted in November and sentenced to prison for trying to found a peaceful political party.
  • Sad al-Rashud and others were convicted in January 2012 and sentenced to prison for taking part in a peaceful protest in December 2011.
  • Nadhir Al Majid, arrested in April 2011, is charged with providing information to an international journalist.
  • Mubarak bin Zuair, arrested in March 2011, was charged in December 2011 with "disobeying religious scholars," and "encumbering the affairs of the ruler" for petitioning the interior ministry to release his detained father.
  • Shaima Jastainah, a woman driver, was convicted in September for violating public order and sentenced to public lashing.
These cases are seminal in defining, in law, seemingly absolute powers of the ruler and denying basic rights of assembly, association, and expression to citizens. They underline that the courts remain pliant tools of government repression. But the cases have also given fodder to what by 2012 has become a large number of engaged citizens who use Twitter and other online expression to ridicule these verdicts, protest new arrests and trials, and demand their international human rights. The government has apparently taken note of this public opinion and released Khadhr, Rashud, bin Zuair, and others.
The House of Saud remains the absolute rulers, but the Saudi "Spring" has left its mark. Saudi absolutism has become less arbitrary and more defined, and thus open to challenge, in the courts and in public opinion. The government has to publicly defend its actions, and increasingly, members of the public are doubting its reasoning that portrays peaceful, often nationalistic and religious-based reform activism as dangerous subversion.

Christoph Wilcke is a senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch who has long tracked developments in Saudi Arabia.