“Waleed Sami Abulkhair is a Saudi Arabian lawyer and human rights activist, and the head of the ‘Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia’ (MHRSA) organization. He was listed by Forbes magazine as one of [the] Top 100 Most Influential Arabs on Twitter. He is the first activist to be prosecuted by the Terrorism Law… On July 6, 2014, Abulkhair was sentenced to 15 years in prison by the Specialized Criminal Court…” (Wikipedia, 12 May 2016). Waleed also has a young daughter, born during his detention, but is not allowed family visits.
Back in March of this year I was invited for the Golden Jubilee of King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, along with many other non-Saudi students from Arab countries and Turkey. In consultation with Amnesty International, I decided that I would make an attempt to visit Waleed in jail. Amnesty takes up the causes of those whose human rights are violated, and Waleed is considered such a person. I wanted to signal to my hosts that the human rights position of Saudi Arabia cast – at least for me – a shadow over this otherwise joyful occasion at the highest ranked university in the Arab world.
If I had applied to visit Waleed either from the Netherlands or from Turkey, I was quite sure that I would be denied a visa. So I waited until after I had arrived to ask my hosts to apply for permission for a jail visit. There were risks involved: such an application might put my hosts or Waleed or indeed myself in danger – but I decided that I was too small fry for such retaliation. And so I sent an email to my hosts.
Veiled threats and just deserts?
There was an almost immediate answer: “We don’t know what you’re talking about”. A quite crude reply, basically telling me to drop it. Yet this turned out to be just the start of a series of discussions with members of the university staff about the case of Waleed. Was it merely a coincidence; was it intentional on the part of my hosts; or was it part of a broader government plan?
I learned that my Saudi hosts know a lot about Amnesty. Moreover, they hold Amnesty in high esteem. Yet my hosts consider Amnesty’s case about Waleed to be wrong (apart from the denial of family visits). In Saudi Arabia they see human rights as a simple trade-off with stability. Many Saudis feel that their society is in a precarious situation between the extremists on the right and the broader mainstream.
Those who rock the boat are dealt with harshly: be they ‘liberals’ who want to bring the Saudi way of life closer to that of Western societies; or sections of the Shia minority who do not recognise the present government. My hosts without exception accepted the view that Saudi Arabia at present should not allow opposition, for the simple reason that it would threaten stability. Waleed had rocked the boat, threatened stability, and so in their eyes he deserved his punishment. All 15 years or more of it: adding up to his daughter’s entire childhood.
Historic lessons for transitional times
King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, crowned in January 2015, is more than ever concerned with stability. One of his first decisions in power was to set a course away from oil dependency. His son, Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, the Deputy Crown Prince, set this out in detail in January 2016 in an interview with the Economist. Under this long-term plan, Saudis will pay higher prices for oil, for water and as a consequence for pretty much everything else. Taxes will rise and social handouts will fall.
The Dutch have some lessons to tell about the impact of rising taxes: in 1569 they rebelled against their Spanish overlords right after the Duke of Alva imposed a 10% tax on all goods and services. Almost 500 years later, King Salman sees the potential for instability from his socio-economic policies – and wants no complications from any cultural, religious or human rights issues.
Yet my hosts interpreted my stand as a moral judgment against Saudi society, rather than against their government or institutions. There was even some bitterness, as Western societies are seen as becoming increasingly anti-Muslim. Was I simply being insensitive? Do they have an inferiority complex? Was I missing the bigger picture or were they?
The day before I left I made a long walk on the boulevard in the late afternoon. It runs along the bay that connects Jeddah with the Red Sea. The parks and the seashore were full of families with children playing. The most peaceful and friendly atmosphere you can imagine. You walk through the crowds and feel perfectly safe. I reflected and asked myself whether I had been right in raising the subject.
These are the (im)ponderables. On the one hand, some of my Saudi hosts may have felt that their view of Westerners was once again confirmed: that they look down on us. On the other, I hope my hosts will one day see, in the not-too-distant future, that stability and respect for human rights are not mutually exclusive. Quite the opposite, in fact.