5 Ways Ordinary People Are Challenging the Saudi Government

Protesters hit the streets in eastern Saudi Arabia in late 2015.

Protesters hit the streets in eastern Saudi Arabia in late 2015.

March 28, 2016

When Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud became Saudi Arabia’s king in January 2015, there were calls for him to implement economic and social reforms in the kingdom — long considered a key ally of the United States in the Middle East — and improve its human rights record.

More than one year later, those calls continue.

Faced with a resurgent Iran, economic distress from falling oil prices, pressure from religious conservatives, and wars in Yemen and Syria, King Salman’s government has made some reforms — but it also ordered Saudi Arabia’s largest mass execution in nearly three decades.

Now, some ordinary people inside the country are fighting back.

As FRONTLINE’s March 29 documentary, Saudi Arabia Uncovered, reveals firsthand, a new generation of men and women inside the country are risking everything to challenge the status quo and try to bring about change. Here’s how.

They’re secretly filming parts of Saudi Arabia the government doesn’t want you to see.

Members of the Saudi royal family are among the wealthiest people in the world, and the Saudi Arabia the world often sees is a country of wealth and luxury shopping malls. The government has spent billions on social welfare, yet it’s estimated that up to a quarter of Saudi Arabia’s population still lives in poverty. Even though filming in the slums could land them in prison, a network of activists is documenting what life is like there. This undercover footage obtained by FRONTLINE was taken in a slum on the outskirts of Mecca, Islam’s holiest city.






Women are driving.

King Salman has enacted changes enabling women to vote and stand in local elections. Yet under a strict, state-sponsored interpretation of Islamic tradition, women are still banned from taking the wheel. In late 2014, a woman named Loujain Hathloul took matters into her own hands — filming herself trying to drive into Saudi Arabia from the neighboring United Arab Emirates. Moments after her filming ended, Hathloul was arrested. As Saudi Arabia Uncovered recounts, she’s gone on to become one of Saudi Arabia’s most prominent women’s rights activists.


They’re fighting back against public violence.

One particularly disturbing scene from Saudi Arabia Uncovered shows a woman who had been convicted of killing and sexually assaulting her stepdaughter being publicly beheaded on a city street, while screaming, “I didn’t do it.” Others show women being knocked to the ground by men in public places. Activists are secretly filming public violence like this, and sometimes, the footage shows how ordinary Saudis are reacting — including some women fighting back. In the below scene, after being whipped in public, several women turn on their attackers.


They’re blogging.

In 2012, a secular activist named Raif Badawi took to his website to publicly criticize the close relationship between Saudi Arabia’s rulers and the country’s conservative clerics, who are supported by much of the population. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for insulting Islam. He has spent much of his sentence in one of Saudi Arabia’s most notorious prisons. As Saudi Arabia Uncovered reports, his family — now living in exile — hasn’t stopped fighting for his freedom.



They’re protesting.

It was a bloody way to ring in the new year: In January of 2016, the Saudi government oversaw the mass execution of 47 people on terror charges. It was the nation’s largest mass execution in nearly 30 years. Many of those executed were convicted Al Qaeda terrorists, but one of them was the controversial Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr — widely seen as the spiritual leader of Saudi Arabia’s 2011 Shia uprising. Footage from Saudi Arabia Uncovered shows how the Sheikh’s execution sparked the first major protests in the East of Saudi Arabia since the Arab Spring.


To learn more about Saudi Arabia today, and to the meet citizens there who are challenging the government, watch FRONTLINE’s Saudi Arabia Uncovered on Tues., March 29 starting at 10 p.m. EST/9 p.m. CST on PBS stations (check your local listings) and online at pbs.org/frontline.

Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE



In order to foster a civil and literate discussion that respects all participants, FRONTLINE has the following guidelines for commentary. By submitting comments here, you are consenting to these rules:

Readers' comments that include profanity, obscenity, personal attacks, harassment, or are defamatory, sexist, racist, violate a third party's right to privacy, or are otherwise inappropriate, will be removed. Entries that are unsigned or are "signed" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. We reserve the right to not post comments that are more than 400 words. We will take steps to block users who repeatedly violate our commenting rules, terms of use, or privacy policies. You are fully responsible for your comments.

blog comments powered by Disqus

More Stories

New Data on Utah Police Shootings and Race Called ‘Extremely Uncomfortable’, ‘Disappointing’
Racial and ethnic minorities account for a third of the people shot at by Utah police over the past decade — despite these groups making up just a quarter of the population.
September 20, 2021
Most Minneapolis Voters Believe Crime Is on the Rise, New Poll Finds
An overwhelming majority of likely Minneapolis voters say crime is on the rise, a view strongly held by residents of every race, gender and age group across the city, according to a new Minnesota poll, our Local Journalism Initiative partner the Star Tribune reports.
September 18, 2021
Minnesota Poll: Most Minneapolis Voters Want Reform, Not Fewer Cops
A clear majority of Minneapolis voters oppose reducing the size of the city’s police force — a feeling that’s especially strong among Black voters, according to a new poll. At the same time, voters are showing support for replacing the police department with a new agency, our Local Journalism Initiative partner the Star Tribune finds.
September 18, 2021
Get the Backstory on Duterte’s ‘War on Drugs’ as ICC Green Lights Investigation into Philippines Killings
With the International Criminal Court authorizing an official investigation into Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody “war on drugs," these two documentaries and one podcast episode offer context.
September 17, 2021