Saudi Arabia’s Rulers Have Cautiously Opened the Door to Liberalization. They Should Keep Pushing

January 9, 2018 | Ensaf Haidar
About the author:

Over the past two years, the Saudi government has curbed the power of the clerical police and eased some religious restrictions, most notably by extending to women the right to drive cars. Ensaf Haidar—whose husband Raif has been imprisoned and publicly lashed for propagating liberal ideas on his blog—hopes that such reforms will be followed by a more liberal attitude toward dissent:

Manal al-Sharif and Loujain al-Hathloul, two renowned activists, became the public face of a campaign [to legalize driving for women]. Sharif spent nine days in detention for posting a video of herself driving; Hathloul spent 73 days in prison after attempting to drive into Saudi Arabia from the United Arab Emirates in 2014. . . .

[D]emanding greater social and political rights has often exacted a severe cost on Saudi activists and intellectuals. I know this from experience. My husband, Raif Badawi, a blogger and activist, was a harsh critic of Saudi Arabia’s clerical establishment. . . .

On June 17, 2012, Raif was detained on charges that included apostasy, cybercrime, and disobeying his father. . . . In May 2014, Raif was sentenced to ten years in prison and 1,000 lashes, and fined a million Saudi Arabian riyal for creating an online forum for public debate and “insulting” Islam. On January 9, 2015, Raif was struck with 50 lashes in a public square in Jeddah, but the lashing was stopped on medical advice. He remains in prison. Only a pardon from King Salman can get him released.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, [the force behind recent reforms], has the opportunity to rewrite Saudi history and bring freedom and openness to our country. He could start a process of national reconciliation by reconsidering the cases and imprisonment of prisoners of conscience like my husband. By securing their freedom, Prince Mohammed would give us hope and make our country a place exiles would prefer to return to and participate in building our collective future.

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