Is there hope for Saudi Arabia?

Exciting times in the Middle East. Winds of change are sweeping across the region, giving hope to scores of frustrated youths after decades of stagnation. The Arab Spring was blossoming at alarming pace to the geriatric rulers who found themselves resisting an inevitable fate. No where was this clearer than in Saudi Arabia, which was, and still is, at the forefront of the counterrevolution. They welcomed Tunisian despot Ben Ali and gave him refuge, they supported Mubarak to the end even after the people of Egypt denounced him, and they sent their army to Bahrain to help crush the uprising there.

Domestically, the Saudi government took several measures to block the revolution from reaching their shores. They gave away financial aid packages worth $133 billion. They tightened restrictions on media. And when calls for protest spread in the country, security forces were heavily deployed in all major streets. The intimidation worked. The streets remained empty on March 11, except for one man, Khaled al-Johani, who is still missing after he showed up for the protest in Riyadh and spoke to journalists what many people have been thinking about but never dared to say in public. The government announced it will hold municipal elections later this year, but half of the members of the municipal councils will be appointed, and women are still excluded for participating.

Women played a crucial role in the Arab revolutions, and Saudi women have taken notice. In addition for not allowing them to vote or even work without their male guardians’ permission, Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that bars women from driving.

Women have been working on an online campaign in social networks to start driving their cars on June 17. The past week has witnessed several incidents of women driving in different parts of the Kingdom. The latest incident involved Manal al-Sharif, one of the organizers of the online campaign. Al-Sharif drove her car in the eastern city of Khobar. She was detained briefly then released, before being detained again from her house in the Aramco camp in Dahran at the wee hours of Sunday.

Al-Sharif is an information technology specialist with the state-owned oil giant Aramco. Behind the walls of the Aramco camp, women are allowed to drive and free to move without their abayas. Typically, Saudi police are not allowed inside the camp except in cases of crime or national security matters. Al-Sharif was arrested by members of the secret police (mabaheth), an eyewitness said. Al-Sharif’s brother was also detained, but he was released later on Sunday.

Her lawyer Adnan al-Saleh told the New York Times yesterday that al-Sharif will be held for up to five days on charges of disturbing public order and inciting public opinion. Today, the local al-Watan daily reported that al-Sharif had a meltdown and repented of her actions according to unnamed sources. But activist Samar Badwai who visited al-Sharif in her detention said the latter denied the news reported in local media and quoted her saying: “I’m still steadfast and strong thanks to your support.”

The support comes from more than 1,000 Saudis who signed a petition on Facebook asking the King to end al-Sharif’s detention. Human Rights Watch also demanded the government to release her. “Arresting a woman who drove her family around in a car and then showed it online opens Saudi Arabia to condemnation – and, in fact, to mockery – around the world,” said Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher at HRW.

It is certainly an embarrassing situation. The lessons of the recent popular uprisings should be fresh in our minds. Throwing money at problems does not solve them. Intimidation can only take you so far, and half measures are not the answer. Saudi Arabia is in severe need for political and social change immediately, because the status quo is simply unsustainable. But most of the recent indications point to the opposite direction. Is there hope for Saudi Arabia?

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