The Current

Arrest of UBC graduate casts doubt on Saudi Arabia's push for reform

As Saudi Arabia is set to lift the notorious ban on women driving in mere weeks, a UBC grad and outspoken women's rights activist finds herself detained - again - along with other human rights activists caught in the country's crackdown.

Accusations against activists are 'ludicrous,' says Human Rights Watch researcher

Loujain Al Hathloul graduated from the University of British Columbia in 2013. The women's rights activist first made headlines in 2014 after attempting to drive across the border into Saudi Arabia from the United Arab Emirates. (Loujain Al-Hathloul/Facebook)
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Saudi Arabia's crown prince Mohammed bin Salman has issued a crackdown on women activists refuting the progressive image he's been trying to cultivate, says Human Rights Watch researcher. 

Since May 15, Canadian women's rights activist Loujain Al-Hathloul has been detained in Saudi Arabia, along with nine other human rights activists. The crackdown comes several weeks before the kingdom is set to lift the world's only ban on women driving.

"To accuse these women of harming the safety and security of the nation simply because they advocate for basic rights is ludicrous, especially now that the MBS is branding himself as a reformer and a supporter of women's rights," said Hiba Zayadin, a research assistant for Human Rights Watch.

Hiba Zayadin says activists who have been detained are being accused of suspicious contact with foreign entities to destabilize the security and stability of Saudi Arabia. 0:49

The contradiction between MBS (the popular acronym for bin Salman) branding himself as a reformer and the reality of a crackdown is not much a concern for the prince, according to Zayadin. She argued he's more focused on being seen as a modernizing force in Saudi Arabia on the international stage.

"The economic context right now in Saudi Arabia is pushing the regime to diversify," Zayadin told The Current's Piya Chattopadhyay, adding MBS has been aggressively seeking investments on a whirlwind tour in Europe.

This is not the first time Al-Hathloul has been detained. In 2014, the Saudi activist made headlines by hopping in her car and attempting to drive from the United Arab Emirates into Saudi Arabia. But this time, her arrest comes several weeks before the Saudi government is set to end its ban on women driving.

Before her earlier arrest, Al-Hathloul studied at the University of British Columbia. Now faculty members at UBC are calling on Ottawa to intervene in her case.

UBC president Santa Ono said in a statement on Wednesday that the Canadian government was asked to "work with its Saudi Arabian counterparts to ensure Ms. Al-Hathloul's release and to encourage Saudi Arabia to recognize the rights of Saudi Arabian women."

Although at this point charges have not been laid, a former teacher of Al-Hathloul's, Sima Godfrey, told Chattopadhyay she is concerned.

"From what I've been reading, if we wait until charges are laid that's going to make the situation even more precarious for her," said Godfrey.

Listen to the full conversation near the top of this page.


This segment was produced by The Current's Jessica Linzey, Willow Smith and Pacinthe Mattar.

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