Uncertainty in Saudi Arabia
At least three prominent Saudi clerics, Salman al-Awda, Awad al-Qarni and Ali al-Umari, have been arrested in the last few days. They are not part of the state-backed clerical establishment. Saudi Arabia has always had problems with clerics whose loyalties are not to the royal family, going back to the revolt of the Ikhwan which was ruthlessly suppressed by Ibn Saud in 1929. Nowadays the problem has a new dimension: large online followings. Nearly 60 per cent of the Saudi population are said to be active on social media; al-Awda has more than 14 million followers on Twitter. Le Monde describes him as a defender of individual liberty and one of the most popular challengers of authoritarianism in Saudi Arabia.
There are reports on social media of more arrests including other clerics and the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. During the reign of King Abdullah (2005-15), Khashoggi was a respected supporter of the regime and became the editor-in-chief of a leading news channel, but last week he had to deny accusations that he was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. A senior member of the royal family, Prince Abd al-Aziz bin Fahd, the son of the late King Fahd, has also reportedly been detained. He apparently tweeted that if he did not travel after performing the hajj it would be because he had been killed, but it seems that his account may have been hacked.
It's even harder than usual to know which of these stories can be believed, because of the current dispute between Saudi Arabia (with the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt) and Qatar. Both sides are vigorously engaged in propaganda. Some of the arrests that are beyond doubt may have been triggered by the reluctance of these individuals to speak out against Qatar. Al-Awda called for the dispute to be resolved by compromise – not what Saudi leaders want to hear.
There is another, perhaps weightier reason for a crackdown on those whose loyalty is in doubt. Social media are awash with speculation about how and when Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) will replace his father. King Salman is 81 and in poor health, possibly so poor that he is not really functioning as ruler. Muhammad is 32, and his meteoric rise to the position of Lord High Everything Else has disgruntled many in the royal family who feel sidelined. Most commentators expect him to assume the throne pretty soon, but see public criticism by religious bodies and senior royals as growing risks for his position. The anonymous blogger who goes by the name of Mujtahidd tweeted on 9 September that MBS would be declared king any day now.
One reason for delay may be the possibility of popular demonstrations on 15 September (a demonstration in support is planned at the Saudi Embassy in London at 2 p.m. today). Opposition groups announced in June that they were forming a Union of Opposition Forces in the Arabian Peninsula, working for peaceful change in Saudi Arabia. They are among the people behind a new 15 September Movement, which set out its programme in a video released on 6 September. It called for mass demonstrations on Friday across the country to address a list of grievances – including unemployment, poverty, lack of housing, crime, drugs, family breakdown, the oppression of women, health and education – and to demand the release of political prisoners and an end to financial and administrative corruption. The programme does not call for the removal of the Saudi regime or oppose the war in Yemen; on the contrary, Mujtahidd and others criticise the government for alleged ties with Israel and signs of going soft on Iran.
There have been attempts in the past, notably during the Arab Spring in 2011, to mount such demonstrations and they have flopped. No one can say what will happen this time, but for MBS to step up to the throne a couple of days before would be to take an unnecessary risk. Meanwhile, the propaganda rises to the baroque. The Saudi satirist Ghanim Almasarir, who lives in Brent, likes to show MBS in nappies. His videos have been viewed millions of times on YouTube. He has received death threats from Majid al-Maliki, a former civil servant who describes himself as a hitman and claims to be listed in Guinness World Records for eating 22 live scorpions.