In the spring of 2012, I made an extended visit to Saudi Arabia to report on the effects of the Arab Spring there. The arch-conservative oil monarchy was pursuing a robust counter-revolution, but the uprisings had brought new energy to reformers across the region. I was curious to see how Saudis themselves saw their country’s future.
Among the many people I spoke with was Jamal Khashoggi, at the time an unusually well-connected journalist with an irrepressibly optimistic outlook. I also met the prominent reform cleric Salman al-Ouda, who had 14 million Twitter followers; Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the pro-Western billionaire investor; Hatoon al-Fassi, a brilliant historian who viewed the liberated women of pre-Islamic Arabia as a model for change in her own society; Mohammad Fahad al-Qahtani, a US-educated economics professor; Waleed Abu al-Khair, a Jeddah lawyer; and the young blogger Eman Fahad al-Nafjan.
Men and women, young and old, deeply religious and secular: they came from very different places in Saudi life. Some, like Khashoggi, were at the heart of the establishment; others saw themselves as true oppositionists. What nearly all of them shared was an interest in social and political reform—and the belief that the United States would support them in that end. It did not.
In the years since my visit, every one of them has been detained, put on trial, jailed, chased into exile, or worse. Al-Nafjan and al-Fassi have been arrested for defending women’s rights. Prince Alwaleed was among the Saudi businessmen forced to hand over huge sums of money to the government after being locked up for months at the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh last winter. Al-Qahtani and al-Khair are serving long prison sentences; al-Ouda may face the death penalty. Until this month, none of their cases had aroused much concern from the US government. [Continue reading…]