By Glen Carey and Vivian Nereim
Saudi Arabia’s top religious body and media publicly supported the arrests of prominent clerics and activists who in the past have criticized the monarchy, after the government announced it had neutralized a threat from Saudis working for “foreign powers.”
The apparent crackdown on potential dissenters, some with ties to the brand of political Islam that Saudi rulers have long opposed, comes at a time of growing speculation that King Salman will abdicate in favor of his already powerful son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Given the absolute powers enjoyed by Saudi rulers, any succession is sensitive. But that would especially be the case now with the 32-year-old prince promoting unprecedented economic change, at the same time as pursuing a more aggressive foreign policy that includes the war in Yemen and the boycott of Gulf neighbor Qatar.
In a statement posted on Twitter on Wednesday, the Council of Senior Scholars declared there was “no place for political or ideological parties” in a nation “based on the book of God and the guidance of his messenger.” Saudi newspapers accused those arrested of being aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization that several Gulf monarchies have designated as a terrorist group.
Among those detained by Saudi authorities are clerics Salman Al-Oudah and Awad al-Qarni — who are both independent of the official religious establishment — as well as a well-known poet, Ziad bin Nahit, Islamic studies professor Mustafa Al Hassan and businessman Essam Al Zamil, according to Twitter posts and interviews with activists, relatives and friends.
Bloomberg was unable to independently verify their detention. Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi commentator and former government adviser, said on Twitter that Saudi citizens aren’t yet fully aware of the prevailing “atmosphere of detention and intimidation.”
After news of the arrests surfaced, the State Security Presidency said it had “neutralized and arrested” Saudis working for “the benefit of foreign powers” against the security of the kingdom. It didn’t identify who had been held. The government’s Center for International Communications and the Saudi Human Rights Commission didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
A sweep of this scale would represent a significant rounding up of conservative scholars and activists likely to be resistant to some of the changes featured in the Saudi reform push, according to analysts.
“It’s hard not to call it a crackdown,” said James Dorsey, a senior fellow for the Middle East and North Africa at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, adding he didn’t want to speculate on the timing of the move. Existing Saudi restrictions on expressing criticism already make “pushing through economic and social reforms that are likely to spark debate — if not opposition — more risky,” he said.
Saudi authorities have denied King Salman is about to step down but that hasn’t stopped the speculation. New York-based Eurasia Group wrote in a report last week that the Royal Court was planning for Prince Mohammed’s ascension.
At least two of those detained expressed hope for a solution to the more than three month Gulf standoff with Qatar, which Saudi Arabia and its allies accuse of supporting of terrorism and sustaining links to the Muslim Brotherhood. Al Zamil has in the past posted comments on Twitter that were critical of elements of the government’s reform plan, which is designed to reduce the kingdom’s reliance on oil.
More importantly for many Saudis, authorities have cut energy and utility subsidies and want citizens to seek employment opportunities in the private sector instead of relying on government jobs.
Al-Oudah, who has more than 14 million Twitter followers, was jailed in the 1990s for advocating the Islamic militancy espoused by al-Qaeda. After he was released from prison, the religious scholar didn’t publicly comment on political Islam, though in March 2013 he published a letter online saying rulers must take steps to stamp out political and business corruption and warned of risks when religious and political symbols lose their value.
Saudi papers have joined in. Okaz and Al Watan accused those detained of being supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and working for Qatari intelligence. One of the men arrested was “one of the most famous faces of the Muslim Brotherhood” who played a “hidden role” in preparing the youth “to lead demonstrations and protests in Gulf countries, especially in Saudi Arabia,” Okaz said.
According to Theodore Karasik, a senior adviser at Gulf State Analytics in Washington D.C., the crackdown could be related to problems the crown prince is facing at home and abroad.
There’s the war against Houthi rebels in Yemen and “the impasse with Qatar. Domestically, there is resistance to his economic and social agenda from different corners of society,” Karasik said. Bad news will likely bring a reaction, he said by email, “and there is a lot of bad news.”