Skip to main content

As Saudi Arabia pushes socioeconomic change, arrests show limits to reform

Riyadh has been heavily investing in its economic diversification agenda but a slate of recent arrests over citizens' social media posts and other alleged state violations highlight the limits of Saudi Arabia's socioeconomic reforms.
Charles Leclerc of Monaco driving (16) the Ferrari F1-75, Kevin Magnussen of Denmark driving the (20) Haas F1 VF-22 Ferrari, Fernando Alonso of Spain driving the (14) Alpine F1 A522 Renault, Esteban Ocon of France driving the (31) Alpine F1 A522 Renault, Lando Norris of Great Britain driving the (4) McLaren MCL36 Mercedes, Lance Stroll of Canada driving the (18) Aston Martin AMR22 Mercedes and Zhou Guanyu of China driving the (24) Alfa Romeo F1 C42 Ferrari line up to practice starts at the end of final prac

This is an excerpt from the Gulf Briefing, Al-Monitor's weekly newsletter covering the big stories of the week across the Gulf. To get it directly to your inbox, sign up here.

DUBAI —  Over the past week, news emerged that Saudi Arabia's counterterrorism court found Manahel al-Otaibi guilty in January of having committed a “number of terrorist offenses." The kingdom revealed the sentencing in a reply to a request for information from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). The Specialized Criminal Court handed down a sentence of 11 years in prison to the Riyadh-based 29-year-old fitness instructor who promoted female empowerment on social media before she was arrested in November 2022.

The OHCHR reported in December 2023 that charges initially brought against Otaibi by Saudi authorities related to violations of the Anti-Cyber Crime Law, such as “opposing the laws relating to women,” including the male guardianship system, and going out without wearing the loose-fitting, body-shrouding robe known as the abaya. Prosecutors later added the charges of “defaming the Kingdom at home and abroad, calling for rebellion against public order and society’s traditions and customs.” 

Human rights groups have accused the Specialized Criminal Court of conducting “grossly unfair” trials, and Amnesty International found that Saudi Arabia prosecuted at least 32 individuals as of January 2024 for expressing opinions on social media. Yet Saudi Arabia said in its reply to the OHCHR that “no person is held in detention in Saudi Arabia for exercising their rights and freedoms.” The kingdom added that freedom of expression is guaranteed in the country “unless such acts are deemed to breach or exceed the bounds of public order or the norms applicable to society.”

Access the Middle East news and analysis you can trust

Join our community of Middle East readers to experience all of Al-Monitor, including 24/7 news, analyses, memos, reports and newsletters.


Only $100 per year.