When Mohammed bin Nayef (b. 1959), the son of the Saudi Minister of Interior, inherited his father’s role in 2012, Western media and governments welcomed what was dubbed as a courageous move by King Abdullah to bring in Western-educated second-generation princes into senior roles. It was no surprise that Mohammed succeeded his father, who had groomed him for the role since 1999. He was hailed as the brain behind eliminating al-Qaeda operatives — or more accurately evicting them to nearby Yemen — rehabilitating terrorists and keeping an eye on internal security matters. Saudis were not surprised by Muhammad’s appointment, but many were apprehensive.
Today, Mohammed bin Nayef controls the most important state within the Saudi state, namely that imposing structure in the heart of Riyadh, built to intimidate a restless youthful population. With thousands of employees, the Ministry of Interior is a total institution that controls even the air that Saudis breathe. From local government, morality police, intelligence services, security forces, the judiciary, and municipalities, the Ministry has the upper hand. It can undermine the king's rhetoric about reform by arresting reformers, which it did in 2004. The Ministry of Interior can arrest citizens, cancel cultural events, ban people from travel, confiscate passports, and send its security forces to quash demonstrations and even shoot protestors. The heavy hand of this total institution was strengthened as the War on Terror became a carte blanche to rule without accountability, arrest without warrant and detain indefinitely. The Ministry of Interior makes the laws and breaks them without the pressure to explain, justify or apologize.
Saudi reformist activists who had endeared themselves to the king found themselves arrested by the Ministry’s agents in 2004, when petitions asking for political reform were presented to the king. The king may adopt the rhetoric of reform and the pretence of listening to his subjects, but the Ministry of Interior has no room for endearment. Its intimidation tactics oscillate between direct violence against citizens in the streets and prisons and indirect controls under religious guises and the spread of piety and propriety. Its security forces have truly earned the nickname of "early morning visitors," zuwwar al-fajr, who often raid homes, break doors, search and arrest across different ideological divides from hardline Islamists to liberal youth.
The heavy handed policing techniques of the Ministry of Interior have not gone without criticism. Over less than a decade, Saudis have moved from sending petitions complaining about the Ministry’s excessive and unjustified total governance to openly defying its many security forces on the ground.
One of the first unrecognised civil society organisations in Saudi Arabia to draw attention to the excessive abuses of the Ministry of Interior was the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association. One of its early petitions openly called for putting Prince Nayef on trial, limiting his extensive control over all internal Saudi matters, and freeing the judiciary from his grip. In its various communiqués and reports, the association exposed cases of torture in Saudi prisons, lobbied for the release of prisoners, and reached out to global human rights organisations. Its founders are drawn from a broad section of society, including academics, activists, lawyers, and judges. One of the founders, veteran Islamist Abdullah al-Hamid, is not new to the incarceration scene in Saudi Arabia, as he was himself imprisoned in the 1990s on several occasions. His colleague, Judge Salamn al-Rushudi, was recently sentenced to 15 years in prison at age 76 for loosely defined crimes such as encouraging dissent, reading unauthorised material, lecturing on peaceful Jihad, and most importantly, undermining the persona of Wali al-Amr — in the Saudi context, an ambiguous group of powerful princes. Although the association’s petitions have always showed deference to the king and his authority, appealing to his humanitarian and reformist promises, its founders and activists have not hesitated to denounce the Ministry of Interior. Several of its activists are currently regular visitors to the courts where they have been put on trial. These trials will most probably go on for a long time, resulting in prison sentences.
Video of a protest action.
More recently, the association has become burdened. In addition to regular communiqués and mobilisation on Twitter and Facebook, it has adopted the cases of political prisoners who have been held in prisons for years without trial and called for fair open trials, legal representation and the immediate release of those prisoners who had served their prison sentences.
From the heartland of Wahhabi Arabia, the association is spreading the ethos of peaceful protest, which has been taken on board by heavily veiled women in Buraiydah. These women are the mothers, wives, and daughters of a large, unknown number of prisoners who are held under unclear accusations, all revolving around the ambiguous terrorism charge. From religious scholars who call for not helping the Americans in their aggression on Muslim land, young activists who expressed a wish to perform Jihad in Iraq in 2003, to so-called al-Qaeda women who are accused of providing logistical support for Jihadists, women protesters are raising banners denouncing Mohammed bin Nayef in the streets of Buraiydah.
While these protests started as family affairs, more recently they have been growing and attracting a wider circle of supporters. The recent sentencing of the respected Judge Salman al-Rushudi to 15 years has sparked mobilization not only by his wider family, but supporters from all over Saudi Arabia. Women protesters are often rounded up and put in Ministry of Interior security coaches and sent to prison for a short time. They are often released after being forced to sign pledges not to protest again, but as their number increases, the Ministry is obliged to release them without such formalities. Even after arrests, families of prisoners defy the ban on demonstrations and stage almost weekly sit-ins at the well-guarded and fortified buildings of the Directorate of Intelligence, prisons, and other public spaces in Riyadh and Buraiydah. In an unexpected but highly symbolic act, Buraiydah women protestors held banners denouncing Mohammed bin Nayef, then burned his photo in the street while intelligence officers were determined not to miss a photo opportunity. Needless to say, more than 20 women were immediately dragged away for interrogation.
There is no doubt that Saudis are beginning to not only resent the Ministry of Interior’s total control and heavy-handedness, but also openly defy it in unexpected places such as Riyadh and Qasim, which al-Saud had always imagined to be their solid, loyal base. So far, society remains oblivious to the plight of political prisoners and prefers to adhere to the Ministry’s propaganda, which depicts those prisoners as terrorists. Saudi press and intellectuals congratulate the leadership on its effort to secure peace and eliminate terrorists. This position is upheld by a wide sector of Saudi society until one finds oneself a victim of the Ministry’s excessive policing. Until then, society has remained a spectator, with only a minority calling for serious restrictions on the Ministry’s powers and lifting its interference in the judiciary.
The Ministry of Interior remains defiant as it knows that Nayef’s legacy, and now that of his son, promises to hold the population under control and assures the West that this legacy is their local shield against terrorists. If, however, the Ministry finds itself in regular confrontations with peaceful women protestors, it may not always win. If it ignores this new activism, it is a disaster for its authority. If it suppresses it, it is a catastrophe, as Saudis may not always be tolerant of security agencies messing around with their women.
Madawi Al-Rasheed is a professor of social anthropology at King’s College, London. She is the author of A Most Masculine State: Gender, Religion, and Politics in Saudi Arabia (CUP 2012). You can find more of her work at http://www.madawialrasheed.org/ and she tweets at @MadawiDr