Saudi Arabia’s reformers now face a terrible choice

It is appalling to see 60- and 70-year-old icons of reform being  branded as “traitors” on the front pages of Saudi newspapers.

Women and men who championed many of the same social freedoms — including women driving — that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is now advancing were arrested in Saudi Arabia last week.  The crackdown has shocked even the government’s most stalwart defenders.


The arrests illuminate the predicament confronting all Saudis.

We are being asked to abandon any hope of political freedom, and to keep quiet about arrests and travel bans that impact not only the critics but also their families. We are expected to vigorously applaud social reforms and heap praise on the crown prince while avoiding any reference to the pioneering Saudis who dared to address these issues decades ago.

Last week’s arrests were simply about controlling the narrative. The message is clear to all:  Activism of any sort has to be within the government, and no independent voice or counter-opinion will be allowed. Everyone must stick to the party line.

Is there no other way for us?

Must we choose between movie theaters and our rights as citizens to speak out, whether in support of or critical of our government’s actions?

Do we only voice glowing references to our leader’s decisions, his vision of our future, in exchange for the right to live and travel freely — for ourselves and our wives, husbands and children too?

I have been told that I need to accept, with gratitude, the social reforms that I have long called for while keeping silent on other matters — ranging from the Yemen quagmire, hastily executed economic reforms, the blockade of Qatar, discussions about an alliance with Israel to counter Iran, and last year’s imprisonment of dozens of Saudi intellectuals and clerics.