The FRONTLINE Interview: Hala Al-Dosari

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September 30, 2019

Hala Al-Dosari is a Saudi activist.

This is the transcript of an interview with FRONTLINE’s Martin Smith for The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. It has been edited in parts for clarity and length.

The events of 2011 are significant here in terms of how it threatened the monarchy. Talk a little bit for our audience, who doesn’t fully understand, how severe of a threat that was and why. 

Well, I think they realized that power must be shared. Because that was the demand of the people. But somehow I think they didn’t actually believe that people who are talking online or somehow organizing a Facebook page would be able to mobilize masses. This is very unusual because of the level of restrictions or autonomy that, basically, the government enjoys within Saudi Arabia or within different monarchy in that regard. 

Even in places like Bahrain, which really witnessed a huge mobilization of people, the government still maintained a lot of control over the public through the selection of who gets to be appointed. Basically, which kind of narrative is being run through of course the security voices of the government and the alliances in the region. It was Saudi Arabia that went to support the Bahraini monarchies during the revolution.

The Arab Spring, as we call it here.

Yeah. It is spring, but I think there is some problematic way of looking at it as a spring. But it is a spring for the people to realize their power, to sense that what they can do if they come together, if they challenge, basically, the norms.

But in that regard, it really wasn’t fully materialized, if you think of it, because of the massive control of the government in every way that people can get together — can basically form an association of any level or mobilize others. Because of the control over the media, the control over the positions in the government, it was very difficult for people to get this kind of opportunity to really influence the public.

But there was this very active social media space that the government was somehow blindsided by in Saudi Arabia. Talk about the extent to which the population of Saudi Arabia, which is largely young, was exploiting this space that was a great freedom to actually express yourselves.

Yeah, so places like Saudi Arabia, you have virtually closed-off public spaces. Basically, people are not allowed to form or to meet in public, whether there is this religious, gender divided. It’s divided even by, you know, who gets to meet whom.

It’s usually under the supervision of the government. Literally clubs are basically operated and regulated by the state — like book clubs, for instance, or things like that. So you can’t have any kind of independent gathering or association in Saudi Arabia. So that’s what made the social media very penetrable in Saudi Arabia. The idea that, as a woman to express yourself, you get to connect with likeminded people. People who are trying to spread their understanding of Islamic dogma or Islamic beliefs. You get a lot of people who are now independently developing their own line of analysis and thinking outside of the narrative of the state.

And really created a lot of connection. People realized that that they can actually get together. That somehow they discovered their fellow men and women online, and it made things easier. Because at the beginning people were not there to be active against the state or to change anything. They were just trying to find out who they are and what do they believe in. And this, until now, this has been something that is still existing in Saudi Arabia on the online sphere.

But it changes quite a bit. When Mohammed bin Salman rises, first as deputy crown prince, he begins to recognize that this space on Twitter especially was potentially a problem for the royal court. 

Yeah, so it’s not only the space on Twitter or social media. It’s even the formal media. And you get to see that in the breach that happened in November where the media tycoons were rounded up as well. And there is this kind of regulation of the big media groups you get to CNBC in Iraq, which is a way to influence the rhetoric about Saudi Arabia or about the region. 

So yes, Mohammed bin Salman has been very sensitive to the role of media in extending and projecting influence. And I would say that the government, even before Mohammed bin Salman, was very sensitive. We have an anti-cyber crime law that has been passed since 2006, has been used repeatedly against activists since then to put them in prison. 

Tell me more about that law.

So basically, it has very broad-term clauses that would consider anyone who would challenge the religious beliefs of the state or would challenge the authority of the Ministry of Interior, who would go online and try to, for instance, post ideas that might not be necessarily embraced by the state — they might think of this as something that is a crime. And this is basically the work of the activists. The work of activists is to criticize and challenge the norms and try to mobilize people to either fulfill certain rights or push on a certain interest, public interest. 

What would be the consequence for someone who published something that wasn’t in favor with the state?

Well, most of the time, these people are being, you know, imprisoned for either between three to ten years and followed by travel bans.

But this was happening before Mohammed bin Salman came to power. So how did things change once he took over? Or once he became deputy crown prince? 

Yeah, I think the main idea behind that is, they wanted to increase the image of Mohammed bin Salman as the reformer and his views. And he looked at those people who are trying to maybe portray different views than his own as people who might undercut or undermine his own influence.

And since he’s new, I would say people do not know him yet, whether inside or outside of the international community. I think he felt insecure because of that, and he wanted to achieve quickly you know, this kind of spread of his own narrative and messages. And this was very much evident from the number of interviews, high-profile interviews that he gave to the international media. But I think the main way in which he went after the people is assigning Saud al-Qahtani, who is one of his top aides, as the media advisor first. And then he trusted him with the cyber security, which is operating from within the royal court and enjoys really authority over the state that was unprecedented.

Because before that, it was the Ministry of Interior and different departments within the Ministry of Interior that was handling the security of the state online. But now you get Saud al-Qahtani, who can order the arrest of people whether inside or outside Saudi Arabia, who can, you know, hack people’s phone whether inside or outside, who can detain people and put them in unknown facilities outside of the regular security system for months at a time.

He has his own security teams and personnel that is not answerable to the Minister of Interior. It’s answerable to his phone, basically — the cyber security unit. And it has been seen from the cases of the women activists, for instance.

It was those individuals who were involved in the torture of the women. Or when the torture happened to the women, which was very alarming for us, because it just completely represented disregard of the law, even if the laws of Saudi Arabia or the law of the land is very much non-fitting to the due process or to basically without any guarantees of justice.

So to see that even with that level of, you know, weak laws to protect people’s rights, you can still have the authority to just trespass those weak laws and have your own say against any individual just to represent the amount of power that was entrusted to Saud al-Qahtani. And this of course– was needed in order to wage those kinds of cyber wars against anyone who’s perceived as a challenge to Mohammed bin Salman… 

You started by saying that the original reason for taking hold of the cyber space was because he had his own narrative that he was promoting and did not want to (UNINTELLIGIBLE) any criticism. He didn’t want to be challenged.

Exactly.

And did it go on from there? Is that the primary reason we’re seeing all these arrests?

Yes, I think that is the primary reason. And– the idea that, and it’s, and of course, it’s because it’s an authoritarian government that exists. It’s getting more and more authoritarian as it tries to enforce the power of (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Mohammed bin Salman. I think that is the main reason why you get all those kinds of resources being allocated to consultancy, to PR, to the media basically in general, and to the allocation of special unit for cyber security. 

This has not been such a concern, since in Saudi Arabia we don’t have any kinds of independent association anyways. We do not have political parties or unions or NGOs, independent NGOs or human rights organization that operates outside of the premises of the state — or outside the supervision of the state. So it’s really unwarranted, and it just only tell you how much insecurity, you know, the system feels.

All this time that you’re seeing Mohammed bin Salman is successfully marketing a very different image of himself and is seen and embraced and applauded in the West. All this time you’re trying to get people’s attention to focus on what you see as abuses of legitimate rights. And he’s able to­– 

Generate that goodwill–

He’s seen to generate support throughout the West. 

Yeah, well, it’s very complicated message basically, because Saudi Arabia has been always affiliated with stagnant leadership that embraces radical views of Islam and very oppressive to women and to religious minority. So when you get someone who’s new, who’s able to talk business, who’s very much inviting the global community to engage with him and to promote ideas that is very much appealing to the West, ideas of, you know, supporting women. 

Women, he said, women are equal to men. You know, we’re gonna lift the driving ban, the women driving ban. We’re gonna allow more women in leadership positions. We’re gonna let women work in places that were restricted to them before … we’re gonna, you know– basically roll back on the religious authority inside Saudi Arabia, so they’re not doing any pi–(UNINTELLIGIBLE) or field work.

So he’s saying all the right things, but he’s doing the wrong thing. Right? So if you’re saying the right things, it means that you started with very good consultant– you know, consultancy or PR companies that really directed you to what to do. But then there comes his political ambitions…

I think his political ambition to control was much more severe than any kinds of strategic thinking about the economy or inclusion or allowing more participatory politics inside Saudi Arabia. And you can only deceive people that far. 

And I think if Turkey did not leak the information on Khashoggi’s murder, we wouldn’t have been in that position. We, if we would try to push the torture of the women, even if we learned of the torture, we only learned of the torture of the women after Khashoggi’s killing. So if we even tried to get the attention of the international community on the torture, they might not ever listen to us. Another important aspect of the– 

You went through, I’m sorry, you went through years of not being listened to.

Well, it’s been always this way, because there were always this kind of conflict between: how can we balance the economy? How can the economic interests of the international world, how can we balance the basically the intelligence sharing, if we oppose Saudi Arabia? Because of the position that Saudi Arabia plays as one of the leading countries in the region.

So to have Saudi Arabia form this alliance, this strong alliance, across alliances with U.A.E., with Egypt, and with Israel, is now being seen as an objective that shouldn’t be compromised because we are worried about individuals being in prison. Has never been the case where respect for the rule of law, for the people’s rights to exist peacefully and to interact and engage in their own country, has never been a part of national security or international relations. 

It has been raised some kind of … backlash when someone, when a horrific thing happened like with Jamal Khashoggi’s or the torture of women. But it hasn’t been like viewed as an essential part of the foreign policy of international community. 

I want to go back to Qahtani, and I want to go back to get a description of just how he mounted, or how his presence was seen and felt, the establishment of the blacklist, what that was. If you could just take me through that.

So yes. 

When did you first become aware of him as an actor? And what was he doing?

So he was there, so this is the strange thing. I don’t think he would have been the mastermind basically behind everything, but he gained more influence to do that after Mohammed bin Salman. Saud al-Qahtani has been someone who worked in the royal court since the early 2000. And he has not been known to any Saudis, except as someone who writes against the organized religious groups, right, in the electronic media.

So I think he doesn’t even have this kind of, you know, expertise or power of understand the tactics or the tools of mass surveillance basically. But I think what happened after Mohammed bin Salman is that Saud al-Qahtani became more influential as an advisor, became more of a source of wielding this kind of influence on Mohammed bin Salman. He was the one basically to mastermind this kind of strategy within Saudi Arabia social media. 

And it, as I said it before, it’s very active. It’s very vital, but it’s again not one of those places where people are out to get to oust the government. People are advocating for certain things, petitioning for certain things, but they’re not against, you know, ousting the government or ousting the system. So what happened is that, you get to see this kind of trying to settle scores against anyone who’s not following the line of the state. And it really happened with Qatar, and people became very much alarmed by the language used in the cyber war with Qatar.

And this has been very much Saud al-Qahtani, like, profiled the entry of Saud al-Qahtani into the era of Mohammed bin Salman, has been marked by his work in the in the Qatari affair. And he has been very much himself saying that, he has done a great service to his country by handling the Qatari affair.

And what he was doing was what?

He’s very aggressive. He’s actually waging all kinds of, you know, accusation, defamation against the leaders of Qatar, against Al-Jazeera. You know, maybe some of these things are true, but it’s not very much exclusive to Qatar. You get to see the same examples played by other leaders in the country. They are all at the end of the day absolute monarchies with little to no respect to an- one’s interest except their owns. So you get to see the use of even the vulgar media and the– basically he’s employing all kinds of simple, like, gesture as well as the tribalism.

What was the blacklist?

So the blacklist was something that was generated later on, because people did not necessarily approve of the language or with the cutting of ties, or that was ordered by the royal court. Many people actually refrained from taking that line– or basically rallying behind Mohammed bin Salman or Saud al-Qahtani, especially the notable ones. 

So he felt that he’s not able to mobilize people enough, especially the influential people. The only people that he could mobilize are the people who are already under the, you know, his direction, or the people who are trolls, basically. So what he did is creating this kind of blacklist, calling on the support of people. 

If people did not show the support for Mohammed bin Salman and for their own country at the time, it means that they’re traitors. So putting forth anyone who might be considered someone who did not support the stand of the state in its dispute with Qatar. So suddenly, you get to see people again settling scores with thi– settling scores with each other, trying to promote certain names as traitors. It was–

So people handing in their friends or their­– 

Well, not friends necessarily.

­–their colleagues, right.It’s very much like the McCarthy era in the United States.

Exactly, very much, yeah. And it doesn’t only go against Qatar. So if you’re not, for instance, embracing the position of the Saudi government against the Muslim Brotherhood, for instance, or any kinds of political groups or independent groups, you might be considered, and even the women. There is– the nation is a red line. That is the line that was given, you know, to rally people behind the government against the women activists. So it has been used against the women as ways to basically for people to express their support to the … position of the state on arresting the women activists.

And what kind of attention were you able to get here in the United States for your campaign to recognize what was going on in Saudi Arabia?

Very limited, I have to say. Very limited. People were mesmerized. I will just give an example. On March 2018 Mohammed bin Salman decided to have this kind of multiple visits to U.K. and to the U.S. and to France. Very much high-profile visits where he met with every notable figure. He was featured on the most-prominent outlets. And at the time, I was trying to get people’s attention to speak about the people rounded in September — the people, the lack of due process for people who were locked up under the pretense of the anti-corruption…It was very difficult to get people to recognize that, because he was saying all the right things and putting religious people in prison and getting rid of the restrictions on women. And a lot of those women were called by the royal court, and they were ordered not to engage with the media.

You know, so basically, the only way for them to promote is to engage with the media. A lot of people were banned from travel, but people did not really listen. I only received one meeting to speak at a public event at one of the think tanks, when all the other think tanks were featuring people from the entourage of Mohammed bin Salman or himself. So it was very difficult.

What you’re saying is that people in the United States or in the West just focused on Mohammed bin Salman’s taking on of the religious extremists. And if he was willing to do that, everything else got a pass. 

Yeah, of course. That’s it. 

But you raised these issues. We’d had a grinding war in Yemen, we had the confrontation on Qatar, we had the kidnapping of Hariri, we had the Ritz Carlton event. And all of these things happen, and then he goes on this tour of France, the U.K. and the United States. 

Yeah. The standards are very low when it comes to Saudi Arabia. They don’t expect Saudi Arabia to be a place where there is a rule of law. They are not thinking of Saudi Arabia as a place where you can actually have good leadership.

Who’s they?

I’m talking about the people who are embracing Mohammed bin Salman despite all these things. So I would think that, in their mind, to have someone who’s a little bit more open to engage with the West, to have some kind of open public spaces, restrictions on the religious police, to have those kinds of ideas deliberated publicly in newspapers — he’s actually the right person So I think it’s the problem of the low bar, basically, for leadership in the region that causes this kind of, you know, fascination and mesmerization of Mohammed bin Salman at the beginning.

What about that argument, that look, he’s advancing on the social front. He’s trying to advance Saudi Arabia to diversify its economy. He’s set ambitious goals under Vision 2030. He is feeling beleaguered, and many people would sa he’s justifiably fearing the adventurism of Iran. So he’s in a difficult situation, and yet he’s making progress. 

He’s not in a difficult position, I would say. He’s not. Basically, he enjoyed a lot of support…The support from the West was enormous. The support from the U.S. inside Saudi Arabia, despite the war in Yemen, despite the repercussions of trying to basically hijack the Lebanese prime minister or any kinds of basically aggressive measures that he decided on. 

He got away with all these things with massive support. But at the same time, he did not put these things into, you know, good use. That support that he received was not made into a good use. Even the women activists were silent. I mean, when he ordered the women activists to remain silent, they were silent. 

I mean, people were actually trying to support him. People were trying to make these visions that he promised become a reality. But then he went and turned on the same people who were embracing those visions, the same reformers who wanted to moderate Islam. The same people who wanted to allow more women, more spaces and more rights for women. The activists who are advocating diversity, the economic analysts who are trying to help him achieve his goals in the Vision 2030, the economic goals. 

So I think if he was not driven by fear from Iran necessarily. Iran has been always in the region, and is not gonna go away, and I think he is very much mistaken in many of the positions that he took, whether domestically or in the foreign policy. He has placed his decisions more on his own personal insecurity, rather than on evidence.

Personal insecurity. Everybody who has met him that I’ve spoken to, describes him as extremely self-confident. And–

You can be very much over-confident, that you don’t see the reality. And of course, that’s very much a trait of authoritarian leaders. They don’t see any points beside their own point. They don’t see any views beside their own views. And this is where things get really troubling.

How sustainable is his rule? 

I’m afraid it’s not sustainable at all. I don’t think that he is in a position where he can protect people and protect the country in ways that will be sustainable. He is impulsive. He takes decisions that are not necessarily based on facts or profound evidence. He takes things to very high, extreme levels of aggression uncalled for. 

The conflict in the region is a good example. Why would you go to a war in Yemen if you have a group that is, you know, very much like a minority group going after the legitimate leadership? You can always have some kind of mediation and intervention without, you know, putting the whole country into a disastrous situation and humanitarian crisis that is unprecedented in the recent history. 

And the problematic thing is that, he doesn’t learn. He doesn’t seem to learn from the mistakes that has been done. I feel like he is more doubling down, rather than reconsidering. Imagine the women being in prison for that long. The women, the people who were imprisoned in September for that long.

One woman that’s received a lot of attention is Loujain [al-Hathloul]. Loujain was arrested … She was held for only four days and then released. Were you in touch with her after she was released?

I was.

And what did she tell you about that detention?

She’s been arrested several times…Bu- my understanding is that the interrogation always goes about her own connections. Why did she say something that she saw, that she tweeted about? 

You know, it’s like, they repeat the same questions, so more like an intimidation than acquiring information. I really doubt that the government is looking to get information from anyone, since they’re hacking everyone’s phone, and they have access to their online profile. There is nothing that a person can hide inside Saudi Arabia. So I think the whole interrogation thing is trying to coerce women, maybe is to fall in line or to intimidate them into silence.

She did not understand the rationale behind this, as these things are usually happening while Mohammed bin Salman is celebrating his views of women and equality of women in the West. It was very much, you know, mind boggling for us to see, why would he, you know, say these things while doing these things in reality? We couldn’t really figure out at the beginning. You know, why would he go after her anyway? She is embracing the reforms. She attended, before her arrest, a session at the U.N., at the Human Rights Council, to review the performance of Saudi Arabia under the CEDAW, which is basically a treaty to insure that women are equal in the laws of the land. So we thought maybe that’s the reason, that she engaged with international media as an independent person, rather than appointed by the government to engage. But we didn’t understand why.

Most of these women as well were applying to open a shelter for survivors of violence. So we were thinking maybe that’s the reason. Maybe the government is trying to stop these women from applying for the shelter. But the shelter was not there anyway, so why singling out Loujain?

I think Loujain has been very influential as a voice for the young women and has been influential as a contact person in the international community, whether they are human rights organization, the U.N. or people who are journalists or everyday person who wants to know more about lives of women, young women inside Saudi Arabia. Loujain has been very accessible, very active, and I think that’s what caused the whole aggression, I think, towards her.

And so finally she was arrested and remains. 

And she remains now, yeah, in prison.

The other women, also activists.

Uh-huh (AFFIRM). So, for instance, Eman al-Nafjan is one of the most notable people from the activists community, because she has been the person who orchestrated the October 26 [driving campaign]…She herself doesn’t drive, but she would take picture with any woman. She said, “Anyone who wants to drive, I could just, you know, drive in the car with her, and ride with her.” She would just take the pictures. She wrote extensively on her blog, and she wrote op-eds as well in different places to advocate for more rights of women. Eman is unique. She is not as visible as Loujain. But she is more of the behind-the-scene person who’s ready to do so many things.

Before Jamal Khashoggi’s death, murder, was it plausible to think that women were tortured? 

No, not at all, because again, no one was able to reach the women. They were kept in a complete isolation in a facility that is not in the prison even. And when their family were finally allowed to visit them in August, they were not able to speak to the families, but the families, you know, witnessed the symptoms, the inability, the problems in the movement…the problem in speaking. So the family did notice few things, but the women did not disclose the accounts of torture at the beginning.

So why are we learning about it only now?

So I think what happened with the leak of information on Khashoggi that the families were scared enough, and many people were scared enough, and they started trying to get the information on whether something similar had happened to the women. 

Do you hold the media accountable for failure to put a spotlight on Mohammed bin Salman and his behavior? 

I think, yes and no — yes and no. I think the media is not one. There are diversity in the media representation…I’ve developed very good relationship with people who report from Saudi Arabia on Saudi Arabia. Over the last few years, they’ve been really allies in advocating for campaigning for women’s rights or for human rights in general. 

So they have been really good people who are trying to support the voices of everyone, not only that of the government. Of course, there are media people outside who are willing to just, you know, overlook things, or are trying to basically do business as usual. Try to ride on the sensational wave, you know. But yeah, I don’t feel that this is a constructive thing. I feel like the media should be, of course, an ally to everyone, should be the voice of the people and the voice of the power.

But what I’m seeing now is that there is this kind of shift, that people now are seeing things as they are. Because it’s very easy at the beginning to deceive people. But then you have to deliver, and this is where you can’t really keep on deceiving people. 

And Mohammed bin Salman, in your view, can’t deliver. 

He didn’t deliver to date. I hope someone in the ruling family, because that’s the easiest and the safest approach…is to have someone in the ruling family intervene and accept the real problem in the government. It’s not only that Mohammed bin Salman has shown some kinds of incompetence or aggressiveness. But the problem is in the governance, in the system, in the rule of governance. It’s a model that cannot be sustained without people being part of this. 

Do you see anybody in a position to challenge Mohammed bin Salman and to make a change?

I don’t see now. I see many outside. I don’t see now anyone around him. I think he has insured that those who are around him who have the power basically to engage– with the king are very much neutralized. But I see more outside people who are very much willing to push the boundaries. So I have hope. I always have had hope in the people, rather than in the leadership.

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