Saudi Arabia Arrests and Detains Religious Officials

Saudi Arabia has detained or arrested dozens of people—including religious clerics and intellectuals—since September 10. The Saudi Press Agency reported on September 12 that the preachers and scholars were engaging in “intelligence activities” for “the benefit of foreign parties.” Human rights groups including Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International have condemned the arrests as authoritarian crackdowns.HRW Middle East Director Sarah Leah Watson said, “These apparently politically-motivated arrests are another sign that Mohammad bin Salman has no real interest in improving his country’s record on free speech and the rule of law. Saudis’ alleged efforts to tackle extremism are all for show if all the government does is jail people for their political views.” Some groups, such as the International Union of Muslim Scholars, claim that the arrests are linked to the political feud between Qatar and several other Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt. Salman al-Ouda, one of Saudi Arabia’s best-known clerics—with over 14 million Twitter followers—was arrested hours after tweeting his support for a possible breakthrough in the Qatar crisis. The arrests included three other high-profile clerics: Salman al-Awdah, Awad al-Qarni, and Ali al-Omary, who each operate outside the state-backed religious establishment with large online followings. Reuters reports that each had previously criticized the government and failed to back current Saudi policies, such as in the Qatar dispute. HRW also reports that Jamal Kashoggi, a prominent writer for the pan-Arab Al-Hayat newspaper, announced on Twitter that his publication had banned him from writing regular opinion columns. Saudi activists say that the arrests are being made by agents from the Presidency of State Security, a new enforcement body whose forces report directly to King Salman. King Salman formed the organization with a royal decree on July 20 as part of an administrative overhaul to Saudi Arabia’s security services. The new agency’s purpose is to reduce the administrative burden on the Interior Ministry and to directly focus on counterterrorism and intelligence.