For months, Saudi Arabia had been enjoying a public-relations windfall. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MbS, the kingdom’s charismatic future leader, seduced the world with his vision for a new, modern nation. There have been live concerts, and cinemas are opening, with many more planned. Women can attend soccer games. Last September, MbS announced a bold promise to overturn the country’s ban on women driving, a change that is set to go into effect on June 24.
Then, late on Friday, it all came crashing down: Reports emerged that the women activists who pressed for the policy change had been arrested and imprisoned. As of this morning, 13 are reported to have been arrested; most are women. Apart from the driving issue, they have campaigned against so-called guardianship rules which require Saudi women to receive permission from a male relative before making many life decisions, like traveling. One of those detained was Loujain al-Hathloul, who was photographed at the 2016 One Young World Summit with none other than Meghan Markle, who married Britain’s Prince Harry on Saturday.
What is happening in the kingdom? MbS may want to discourage any popular protests seeking additional social or political changes. (Over the weekend, one American official told me that the arrests reflected the prince’s personal style, even if his name was not publicly linked to them.) His reforms were always likely to provoke opposition from within Saudi Arabia’s male-dominated, hierarchical society, which follows a strict interpretation of Islam. The apparent need to arrest women activists suggests that MbS is having to rethink his grand plans.