NYT Op-ed: Saudi Arabia’s Duplicitous Legalism

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — The authorities knew all along that Waleed Abu al-Khair was guilty. They just needed something better to charge him with. So on April 15, even as the prominent human rights lawyer stood before a judge, accused of harming the country’s reputation and other offenses, they had him arrested right there in the courtroom for something that would really stick: breaking the country’s new antiterrorism law.

Saudi Arabia has been hugely successful in combating terrorism — there have been no major attacks within its borders since 2004, when militants assaulted the American Consulate in Jeddah in an incident that left a dozen people dead. Thus, many people might be puzzled why the government has even bothered to pass the Law for the Crimes of Terrorism and its Financing, which went into effect in February. But like so many government actions of late — including the legal fishing expedition against Mr. Abu al-Khair — the legislation has little to do with fear of Al Qaeda and much to do with fear of the Arab Spring. Click here to read on.


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Saudi activists ‘hibernate’ after series of arrests

The first time I came across Waleed Abulkhair’s name was about five years ago, when I was following Samar Badawi’s case. Badawi was being abused by her father, and despite medical and psychological reports from Saudi hospitals and shelters proving this, a court ruled in her father’s favor and sent Badawi to prison on charges of disobeying her father.

For seven months, Waleed Abulkhair desperately tried to get her released, but to no avail. He then proposed that they go public, with an online campaign about Badawi’s situation. She agreed, and the ensuing publicity shamed the courts into releasing her within six days from the start of the campaign, which immediately went viral. Abulkhair proposed marriage to Badawi, and it took six months of court procedures to release her from her father’s guardianship to Abulkhair’s. One of my favorite interviews is a 2011 BBC radio program featuring the couple, during which they talk about their love. Badawi is currently eight months pregnant with their first child.
Read on by clicking here.


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Sixth of November at the Riyadh Book Fair

Today at the Riyadh Book Fair, Dr. Aisha Al Mana and Dr. Hissa Al Sheikh sat down to sign their book documenting the first demonstration to lift the ban on women driving on November 6th, 1990. Dr. Madiha Al Ajroush was there too with her camera and was kind enough to share the photos she took here. Dr. Al Ajroush had participated in the 1990 demonstration and is the only Saudi woman to take part in every single demonstration and movement to lift the ban on women driving since the first one. She’s also a renowned photographer who has at this year’s book fair an aisle named in her honor.

I’m currently in the process of translating the Sixth of November book. Scroll down to read a sample of the book in English.

Dr. Aisha Al Mana (left), Aziza Al Yousef (center), and Dr. Hissa Al Shiekh (right)

Dr. Aisha Al Mana (left), Aziza Al Yousef (center), and Dr. Hissa Al Shiekh (right)

Dr. Madiha Al Ajroush under the sign for the aisle named in her honor.

Dr. Madiha Al Ajroush under the sign for the aisle named in her honor.

Security guards make sure that book signings are gender segregated.

Security guards make sure that book signings are gender segregated.

A view of the crowd lining up to say hello and get their books signed.

A view of the crowd lining up to say hello and get their books signed.

Sample from the book:

At around 2:30 in the afternoon of November 6th 1990, a good crowd of women started showing up at the parking lot of the Safeway supermarket. Some were driven there by their drivers and others were driven their by their husbands or sons. Once at the parking lot, the chauffeurs, husbands and sons relinquished the cars to the women. The number of women outnumbered the number of cars available. There were forty-seven women and fourteen cars taking part in the demonstration. Not all of the women knew each other and some had never met before that fateful day.

Every woman with a valid driving license obtained from abroad assumed the driver’s seat in each car while the other women got in the passenger’s seats for support. As the prayer call for the afternoon prayer began, the women started their cars. Their husbands, sons and drivers stood in the parking lot, in silence, watching. The simplicity and justice of the movement lent it a reverence that enabled the women to trust in each other and have the courage to act together in their shared cause.

The women started driving their cars one after the other. At the head of the demonstration was a car driven by Wafa Al Muneef followed by another driven by Dr. Aisha Al-Mana. They started on King Abdulaziz street and went on to Ouroba street and then took a left onto Thalatheen Street. The stop lights slowed some of them down. The cars at the beginning of the movement would every once in awhile slow down so that the cars behind could catch up, as they had decided that they would stay together. The scene drew spectators both pedestrians and other car drivers. They stood in shock and disbelief but did not interfere with the procession.

Emboldened by the fact that the police had not stopped them or paid them any attention, the women at the head of the demonstration decided to drive another round. It was at the beginning of the second round that the police finally intervened and stopped the women. The police stopped the women’s cars one by one in a line against the pavement in front of The Riyadh Palace Function Hall on King Abdul Aziz street. The presence of members of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (Religious Police) shortly followed the appearance of the police.

The first thing the policemen did after stopping the demonstration was to ask the women to produce their driving licenses. One woman quickly handed over a valid driving license she had obtained from the U.S.A. Faced with this awkward situation, the perturbed policemen called for their superior who arrived just as the members of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice did. The Commission members requested that the police entrust the women and the investigation over to the Commission. The women opposed the idea completely and the police refused as well.


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My contribution to: MENA Women: Opportunities and Obstacles in 2014

This was published as part of the annual Wilson Center’s Middle East Program celebration of International Women’s Day. You can find articles by women from all across the Middle East. I highly recommend Hala Al Dosari’s article on page 7.

The year 2014 marks the third year since the Arab Spring began in early 2011. Three years in and women in the MENA region are just now beginning to find their bearings and leave their mark. While women in the rest of the world were making strides in women’s rights, women in the Arab world had but only a few victories here and there that were never generalized or widespread to all. Fortunately, things have now changed dramatically, especially for Saudi Arabian women.

Although the same obstacles, including the guardianship system and gender segregation, are still in place, the difference now is in the virtual opportunities. Grassroots movements in Saudi Arabia have finally come into their own. Saudi women have mastered social media and its tools and are now using them to organize in a country where people are imprisoned for participating in public civil societies. Saudi women are not only taking advantage of these tools for women’s rights issues but also participating in the national discussion about human rights in general and the rights of Saudi citizens.

Through the ongoing grassroots movement of the October 26 Saudi women driving campaign, Saudi women (and men) put to rest the myth that the country is made up of a backward, misogynistic people ruled by a progressive governmental elite. Now they are showing the world that Saudis are capable of peaceful civil movements regardless of whether or not the government is ready or willing to accept that they are no longer subjects but citizens. Through the use of social media, Saudi women and men are now able to gather and discuss their issues without the threat of being arrested for breaking political or gender segregation rules. They are now able to find one another and organize with others who have the same civil and human rights goals. The usual tribal, gender, and regional divisions no longer apply. And from where I am sitting, I can see that Saudi people are taking full advantage of these virtual opportunities.


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What Happens When you Synonymize Authority with Immunity

This is a translation of an article written by Saudi human rights activist Ali Al Hattab:

The dangers of officials’ immunity and absolute authority on individuals’ freedom of opinion and expression in society


We all agree on the importance and the necessity of laws in regulating social interactions on all levels to ensure that these interactions do not clash or conflict. Since the emergence of humankind, man has been on a constant quest for mechanisms to organize his public life, beginning with his formulation of simple social norms and ending with advanced legislative constitutions which are considered the highest canopy for laws and regulations, with the objective of serving society and establishing peace and security within their specific frameworks of time and place.

The Dilemma:

It is the “holy union” between immunity and absolute authority granted to administrative governors and its obstruction of the right of opinion and speech for all individuals in society, or what is termed “freedom of opinion.” This is the first and foremost civil liberty sought by individuals; unless a person is emboldened to speak with complete freedom, he will never dare to express his ambitions or object to and reject all forms of injustice and tyranny.

The mechanism of immunity and authority on all legal levels has become the “big stick” that does not differentiate between legitimate and non-legitimate demands. Authorities use it to gag mouths and confiscate freedoms and demands regardless of their orientation, under the pretext of royal or princely immunity. This has led to the destabilization of civil peace and the natural social balance between ruler and ruled, especially with regards to transparent expression, accountability and liability.

Officials have striven to make themselves totally immune to criticism, placing dictates in articles of law in order to achieve personal gains and ambitions independent of legitimacy and the popular will. As a result, hope was lost, demands for reform aborted, the initiators of these demands imprisoned.

To follow are some examples of constitutional codes and articles which make clear the danger of immunity to freedom of opinion and expression in each member state of the Gulf Cooperation Council and the resulting legal liabilities and penalties.


Article 54: “The prince is the head of state and his royal person is not to be touched.” Kuwaiti constitution, 1962.

In 2013, Sarah Al-Diress was sentenced to one year and 8 months in prison for tweets she posted on her Twitter account, for which she was accused of insulting the royal person of the prince. Leader and former parliament member Msallam Al-Barrak also received a preliminary sentence of 5 years for insulting the royal person in a speech he gave in October, 2013.



Qatari Poet Mohammed Al-Ajami sentenced to 15 years for writing  a poem.

Qatari Poet Mohammed Al-Ajami sentenced to 15 years for writing a poem.

Article: 64: “The prince is the head of state. His person is inviolable and respecting him is obligatory.” Qatari constitution, 2004.

Mohamed Rashed Hassan Al-Ajami “Ibn Aldeeb” was arrested in 2011 and sentenced to 15 years for a poem that became popular on YouTube and which was considered incitement to overthrow the regime and an insult to the ruling prince.


The king is the head of state and its nominal representative, and is inviolable. He is the trustworthy protector of the religion and the homeland and the symbol of national unity.” Constitution of Bahrain, 2002.
Activist Nab
eel Rajab was sentenced to 3 years on the charge of participating in an illegal assembly, insulting officials and questioning their patriotism.


Article 41: “The sultan is the head of state and the supreme commander of the armed forces. His person is inviolable and cannot be touched; respecting him is obligatory and his commands are to be obeyed.” The Basic System of Government, 1996.

In December 2012, The Court of Appeals sentenced Basma Al-Kayoumi, Said El-Hashemi and a group of Omani activists to terms ranging from 6 months to a year on the alleged charges of ridiculing the sultan, the violation of the Information Act, illegal assembly and disturbing the peace.

Saudi Arabia


Saudi Mohammed Al Qahtani serving a 10 year sentence for political & human activism

Saudi Mohammed Al Qahtani serving a 10 year sentence for political & human activism

The basic system of government in Saudi Arabia has no articles referring to the criticism of royal personages, yet many demands for rights and political liberties have been rejected, with those demanding them penalized under other punitive regulations – such as the system for combatting IT crimes which states in article six: “Punishment by imprisonment for a term not exceeding 5 years and a fine not exceeding 3 million Riyals, or either of these punishments for anyone who produces material detrimental to the public good, religious values, public morals or the sanctity of private life, etc…”

The Criminal Court of Riyadh ruled for the dissolution of the ACPRA Society, the confiscation of its money, termination of its activities and the imprisonment of its members Abdullah Al-Hamed (11 years) and Mohamed Fahd Al- Qahtani (10 years) for “cyber crimes” based on the above-mentioned article six, because they were demanding political and constitutional reform.

United Arab Emirates
Article 29: “A prison term and fine of up to one million Dirhams for any person using information technology with the intention of satirizing or damaging the reputation and standing of the state or any of its institutions, including the president, vice president, the rulers of its emirates, crown princes or their deputies, the state flag, national security, the state emblem and national anthem or national symbols.” Law for the combat of cyber crimes, 2012.

Activist Waleed Al-Shehhi, arrested in May of 2013, was sentenced to 2 years plus a fine of half a million for tweets posted on his Twitter account about indicted Islamists.

These in addition to hundreds of other cases and examples in the same context, whereas international law is clear in stating that state officials with their wide range of authority must necessarily be liable to a higher degree of criticism than the average citizen.

The UN Commission on Human Rights which issued binding standards for freedom of opinion and expression in article 19 of its Declaration, has made clear that insulting public figures does not justify penalties. It stressed that public figures “including those who exercise the highest political authority such as state presidents and governments” are legitimate targets for criticism.

The aura with which the gulf rulers have surrounded themselves is an exaggerated form of sanctity, and gives them expansive legal grounds to try those who demand political reform and other rights, especially as the position of the ruler is not merely a ceremonial one as is the case in most Western monarchies; It is an administrative position with broad executive powers directly linked to the needs, ambitions and destinies of their peoples.

Hence citizens have a legitimate right to criticize the performance of the ruler and to monitor him, away from personal insults and abuse, in an effort to improve living standards and the quality of life. The constitutions of advanced countries allow for the monitoring of the president and criticism of his performance and even subjecting him to enquiries in certain circumstances, through elected parliaments.


  1. The rewriting of the articles of the constitution and penal regulations to commensurate with freedom of opinion and expression, and to ensure the implementation of international agreements and conventions.
  1. The establishment of precise criteria based on international standards to clarify and define the basic principles of the right to freedom of expression.
  1. The annulment of all laws that obstruct freedom of opinion and expression.
  1. The immediate and unconditional release of all political activists and defenders of human rights who have been imprisoned for practicing their right to freedom of opinion and expression, in addition to dropping all charges related to their practice of freedom of opinion and expression.
  1. The ratification of a new charter that irrefutably endorses the right to freedom of opinion and expression.


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Dog for adoption in Riyadh

My sister rescued this two month old female from the desert.
Her name is Precious, and the name fits her perfectly. She is friendly and playful, but very shy around strangers. Precious is vaccinated and we had her checked out completely and the blood test came out perfectly healthy. All she needs is a loving home. If you are serious about adopting her please send an Email with your details and contact info to Saudiwomanblog@gmail.com







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Saudi activists criticize new counter-terror law

By Abdulla Jaber criticizes the five years prison sentence for using the Rab'a logo

By Abdulla Jaber criticizes the five years prison sentence for using the Rab’a logo

Saudi Arabia’s new counterterrorism law went into effect on Feb. 1. The law’s definition of terrorism among other things includes “acts that harm the reputation of the state or its standing.” A couple of days later, on Feb. 3, a royal decree was issued by King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz in which not only people who fight abroad in Syria and Iraq would be criminally penalized, but also any person who publicly endorses or sympathizes with a group or trend that Saudi authorities deem as extremist.

According to the new law, people can be held for as long as a year without charge pending an investigation. The law and decree do not mean any real change from current practices, but more of a legal blanket for them. For example, blogger Fadhil al-Manasif is being prosecuted under the same charges covered by the new law. Evidence used against Manasif include him writing on a napkin: “Amid the turmoil surrounding us we have to look for points of convergence and find words of unity for the sake of our country and its security. Calls for development, change and reform are charged with incitement and people are imprisoned for it. But with patience they will be an option that cannot be avoided.” This note was considered as proof that Manasif had gone against the government, disturbed public order, undermined society security and state stability and incited sectarianism. TO READ ON CLICK HERE.


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