Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (NI) – From posting a message on Facebook to watching the cursor blink on a screen, many of us take online communication for granted. For most, the idea that such activities might lead to severe punishment is absurd. But, in Saudi Arabia, the West’s treasured Middle East ally, keystrokes can result in public stoning, flogging, life imprisonment, crucifixion, or beheading. Saudi Arabia appears to be existentially threatened by freedom of expression.
On 16 December Ensaf Haida, the wife of imprisoned Saudi blogger Raif Badawi accepted, on his behalf, the 2015 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. Saudi authorities had sentenced the blogger to 10 years in prison with 1,000 lashes for posting comments that criticized the kingdom’s extremist Wahhabi ideology. They consider his views blasphemous.
In January 2015, the Saudi authorities publicly gave Badawi 50 lashes. This first round of flogging resulted in such a serious deterioration in his physical health that doctors were able to halt the flogging for a while. But, a remaining 950 lashes still await Badawi.
United Nations human rights expert David Kaye has expressed alarm at growing repression in Saudi Arabia: ‘Such attacks on freedom of expression deter critical thinking, public participation, and civic engagement, the very things that are crucial to human development and democratic culture,’ he said.
In November this year a Saudi court ordered the beheading of Palestinian poet, Ashraf Fayadh, for allegedly promoting atheism. Also last month, a Saudi court upheld human rights defender Mikhlif al-Shammari’s sentence of two years imprisonment and 200 lashes for ‘stirring up public opinion’. He had been Tweeting about the need for reconciliation between Shia and Sunni communities.
Saudi Arabia has a population of almost 28 million, some 60 percent of whom are online. That means that the regime’s harsh punishment of freedom of expression online is putting the majority of the population at risk. According to Freedom House’s latest annual report, Freedom on the Net 2015, the Saudi television channel Rotana ordered Google to take down a satirical YouTube show after it had used Rotana footage to criticize its owner, Prince Waleed bin Talal. The video was, reportedly, later restored by YouTube. But in the Saudi context, creating such satirical spoofs is playing with fire. In 2011 a royal decree amended the country’s press law to criminalize any criticism of the grand mufti, the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, or of government officials. Violations result in fines and forced closure of media outlets. The regime also sought to limit the influence of new digital media, by blocking access to more than 400,000 websites that are considered immoral or politically sensitive.
Saudi Arabia’s clampdown on criticism spills over into regional media outlets which then engage in self-censorship. For instance the corporate headquarters of Al Jazeera blocked an article entitled ‘Saudi Arabia Uses Terrorism as an Excuse for Human Rights Abuses,’ so that viewers outside the US could not read it. The Qatar-funded media outlet said it removed the piece because it did not mean to offend Saudi Arabia or other allies.
Under the pretext of national security, Saudi authorities regularly monitor websites, blogs, chat rooms, social media sites, emails and mobile phone messages. The kingdom’s citizens expect their communications to be monitored, so many apply encryption methods, which the authorities seek to crack. In 2013 US security expert Moxie Marlinspike published email correspondence between himself and a recruiter from Saudi Arabian telecommunications firm Mobily (which has more than six million subscribers). The Mobily recruiter tried enlisting him to help intercept encrypted data from Twitter, Viber, Vine and WhatsApp mobile applications. Marlinspike rejected Mobily’s offer out of respect for user privacy. The telecommunications giant, which reported $5.35 billion revenue in 2011, likely had no trouble finding others more willing to comply.
According to the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, the Saudi government collaborated with the infamous Italian company ‘Hacking Team’ (which sells intelligence-gathering technology to governments) to distribute a manipulated news application titled Qatif Today to Android mobile devices. It was made available on Google Play. Citizen Lab researchers suspect that the application was launched to spy on users with an interest in the Saudi region of Qatif, which has rich a history of protests.
The right to free expression online is one that many of us continue to take for granted, even after Edward Snowden’s revelations of how the US National Security Agency spies on us.
Saudi Arabia shows how a state can use cutting-edge technology to impose its homogeneous vision of an Islamic state with no room for Facebook comments promoting different points of view. The regime makes little distinction between dissident views, liberal criticism, violent extremism and terrorist networks, clamping down on each with equal aggression. A 2014 Terrorism Law has reinforced a legal framework that criminalizes all dissent as terrorism.
This repression coincides with a frightening escalation in Saudi state-perpetrated terrorism. Amnesty International recently announced that up to November this year, Saudi Arabia had carried out an ‘unprecedented wave of executions’, sentencing 151 people to death and setting a ‘grim new milestone’.
Saudi Arabia is among the West’s most powerful allies in the region. Its immense oil wealth and decades of geo-strategic alliances make the country a valuable asset for the West. Yet compromising aspects of the relationship, including the regime’s macabre human rights record, support for terrorism and ideological proximity to the so-called Islamic State (IS), make the country an uncomfortable bedfellow.
Chris Spannos is Digital Editor at New Internationalist. If you liked this article you may also be interested in our March 2016 magazine which takes a closer look at Saudi Arabia.