Saudi Arabia targets anti-Israel voices online

Saudi Arabia faces backlash over crackdown on social media critics amid normalisation talks

03 May 2024 05:35pm
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. - AFP file photo
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. - AFP file photo

SHAH ALAM - Reports have surfaced that Saudi Arabia is cracking down on its citizens for voicing criticism of Israel's mass killing in Gaza on social media platforms.

According to Bloomberg, the crackdown coincides with ongoing talks between United States officials and Saudi Arabia regarding a potential normalisation deal with Israel.

Unnamed diplomatic sources cited in the report revealed that several individuals have been detained for expressing provocative views on the genocide in Gaza.

Among them, according to Bloomberg's report is an executive associated with Vision 2040, a key economic project led by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Salman.

Another detainee is a media personality who made remarks deemed inflammatory, while a third individual called for a boycott of US fast-food chains in the kingdom.

Saudi activists argued that the prospect of normalising relations with Israel has led to increased repression within Saudi society.

ALQST monitoring and advocacy head Lina al-Hathloul told Middle East Eye, "It exposes the lies around potential normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel... There is no war between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

"So what we see is that instead of bringing peace, it will likely bring more arrests and harassment to the Saudi people."

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Despite media inquiries, the Saudi foreign ministry has not commented on the matter.

Speculation about a potential normalisation deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel has been ongoing, particularly following Israel's normalisation agreements with other Arab states brokered by the US, including Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco.

In January, Saudi Ambassador to London Prince Khalid Bandar indicated that a normalisation deal was close but was paused following operations initiated on Israel by Hamas fighters in October.

The Saudi Foreign Ministry later stated in February that normalisation would not occur without progress towards a Palestinian statehood or a ceasefire.

However, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken suggested progress in talks between Washington and Riyadh during the World Economic Forum in Riyadh, hinting at a potential imminent deal.

Since Mohammed became crown prince in 2017, crackdowns on free speech have reportedly become commonplace in Saudi Arabia.

These crackdowns particularly target individuals posting prohibited content on social media.

The detainees are subject to trial under counterterrorism laws in the Specialised Criminal Court, a process criticised for violating the right to a fair trial.

Notable detainees include fitness instructor Manahel al-Otaibi, who has been held since November 2022 for advocating women's rights, and Manal al-Gafiri, serving an 18-year sentence for posting in support of political prisoners.

Salma al-Shehab, a doctoral candidate at Leeds University, received a 34-year prison term in 2022 for advocating human rights on social media.