Saudi Arabia Declares War on Free Speech and Civil Liberties
Saudi Arabia has done it again … that is to land itself in the middle of a controversy that exposes not just the dictatorial devolution of its system of governance but the inaptitude of its governing dogma to self-sustain against the pushes of technology.
Early this January news surfaced that Prince Mohammed bin Salman called on Netflix to axe one of its up and coming artist: Hassan Minhaj, on account of his criticism of Al Saud royals in the context of their role in propping Islamic terrorism, and gross human rights violations in Yemen.
Incensed by the irreverence of Mr Minhaj – the comedian called Saudi Arabia a grand Terror facilitator and promoter, Riyadh threatened Netflix with legal proceedings by arguing the network had violated a Saudi law against cyber crime. As written, that law forbids “production, preparation, transmission, or storage of material impinging on public order, religious values, public morals, and privacy, through the information network or computers.”
The law (article 6 of the country’s 2007 Anti-Cyber Crime Law) imposes penalties of up to five years in prison and 3 million riyals ($800,000) in fines on those who violate its vaguely written provisions.
Since any form of criticism against the royal ruling elite … however mild and however factually relevant, is deemed a threat against national security, Minhaj deliciously witty take-down of MBS was perceived as an assault begging to be crushed – if need me under the barrel of a legal gun, and most immediately speaking with threats of financial repercussions.
“Saudi Arabia is basically the boy band manager of 9/11. They didn’t write the songs, but they helped get the group together,” Minhaj told his audience.
The kingdom was not one to let that one comment go … regardless of the self-evident irrationality any move against either Netflix or Minhaj would entail. To shut out criticism through attempted censorship at the age of social media is not only counter-intuitive it is counter-productive … and one could say down right idiotic.
Given that the said ‘problematic’ episode is widely available on YouTube, the kingdom inherently lost the argument … not that its rationale had any leg to stand on.
Strategic thinking is clearly not Riyadh’s forte – as he stands, MBS has shown too much proclivity for acute narcissism for any one of us to expect rhyme or reason to befall him.
… And on the Crown Prince marched to see his honour restored and one impudent fool forever punished for daring to speak outside the accepted script.
And yes to an extent MBS managed to get what he wanted from Netflix – the network withdraw access to the episode in Saudi Arabia, but the prince’s clunky attempt to chastised one of America’s rising comedian only served to enhance the latter’s popularity by firmly putting his name under the brightest of light.
Yes Netflix caved … and yes Netflix sold freedom of speech down the river to save itself a nasty standoff with a regime that has turned repression into a state institution. But, and this is i think a reasonable BUT, can we really ask of a corporation to take on the responsibility of a fight our governments should in fact take on?
If Netflix is in the business of self-expression by virtue of the products it offers its audience, its mandate does not provision for the enforcement of media freedom in those places that equate free thinking to an act of apostasy and/or terrorism, aka Saudi Arabia.
As CNN notes:
Netflix’s comment on the decision took pains to note the company’s strong support for “artistic freedom worldwide” while citing the “valid legal request” made by the Saudis.”
However frustrating Netflix’s decision may have been for many I believe Netflix’s position to be symptomatic of the environment we live in – we are stuck in a nefarious cycle of codependency with sociopathic Saudi Arabia and no officials, CEOs, media, or academic institutions has dared challenge the playground bully for fear of a financial fallout … or the rolling of one’s head.
Given how keenly Al Saud ordered the murder of Jamal Khashoggi or how quickly the kingdom advocating the arrest of Rahaf Mohammed for her rejection of Islam … or was it Wahhabism, it is clear Saudi Arabia is out of control.
The authorities have frequently used Article 6 to silence dissent. In 2018 activists Mohammed al-Otaibi and Abdullah al-Attawi, who founded Union for Human Rights were sentenced to 14 and 7 years in prison, respectively for, among other allegations, “dividing national unity” and “publishing information about previous interrogations by the public prosecutor regarding their advocacy work.”
The Saudi government also routinely forces the removal of online content. In September 2017, the Saudi authorities ordered Snapchat to block Al-Jazeera TV as part of its ‘cold war’ against Qatar.
But what does this all mean?
Well for one it means that our world institutions have failed holding Saudi Arabia accountable for its sociopathic conceptualisation of power and how it should engage with its contemporaries … nevermind those communities force to breathe under its flag.
But again, if state officials and corporations lack the teeth, technology and the interconnectivity technology ultimately helped architect with the rise of social media will sweep the kingdom and arguably accelerate its demise.
And yes it’s a good thing! Saudi Arabia is being exposed for the aberration it is and the world public is paying attention. It is impossible today to ignore the litany of criticism being thrown at the kingdom and the kingdom’s leadership. The Washington Post in that regard open the proverbial floodgate.
While the likes of MBS exist still in a protective bubbled by virtue of their checkbook, and geopolitical usefulness, no autocrat can exist without some degree of popular legitimacy … a bully needs its victims to cooperate in the cycle of oppression to self-sustain – fear being a driving factor.
But fear has a limited shelf life.
Rahaf Mohammed’s defiance and calls for asylum on Twitter is testimony to how instrumental technology has been in exposing, eroding, and challenging authoritarianism.
Catherine Shakdam is a research fellow at the Al Bayan Centre for Planning & Studies and a political analyst specializing in radical movements. She is the author of A Tale of Grand Resistance: Yemen, the Wahhabi and the House of Saud. She writes exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.