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Reform in Reverse in Saudi Arabia

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, New York Times
Reform in Reverse in Saudi Arabia

Since rising to power as the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman has cultivated a reputation as a savvy young reformer, dragging his hidebound country into the modern age with a new vision.

Much of his focus has been on economic change, but the prince, a 32-year-old son of the Saudi king, has also promised more enlightened social policies, including for women, and drawn praise for this in the West. In just a few weeks, on June 24, Saudi Arabia is set to lift the long-standing ban on women drivers, putting into effect the most visible social reform that Crown Prince Mohammed has championed.

All to the good, right? Not so fast. During the past two weeks, the prince reversed course, unleashing and then expanding a crackdown on the very activists who had promoted the right of women to drive.

The government rounded up an initial group of activists and then after an international uproar, redoubled its efforts. At least 11 people, mostly women but also a few men, have now been arrested and interrogated without access to lawyers. One woman was said to have been held incommunicado.

Saudi prosecutors have not disclosed the names of those arrested or the charges filed against them. But news reports said the list includes one of Saudi Arabia’s highest-profile feminists, Loujain al-Hathloul, who had been detained for more than 70 days in 2014 for trying to post an online video of herself driving into the kingdom from the United Arab Emirates.

Late Thursday, Amnesty International reported that Saudi authorities had released four of those arrested, but Hathloul apparently was not among them.

Saudi analysts say the reversal is a reflection of Saudi politics and the crown prince’s desire to portray the lifting of the driving ban as a gift of the monarchy to Saudi women rather than a concession to international or domestic pressure.

But the crackdown also raises doubts about the crown prince’s commitment to women’s equality and freedom of movement. Pro-government media outlets publicized photos of the detained activists and accused them of being traitors, a shocking attack on a group whose only apparent offense was peaceful protest. They should be released immediately.

The episode also calls into question Crown Prince Mohammed’s ability to deliver on his promises to bring fundamental change to a patriarchal society where men exert legal control over women.

The clerical hierarchy that administers Saudi Arabia’s ultraconservative version of Islam, known as Wahhabism, opposes allowing women to drive and other proposals to soften Saudi culture and religion that are part of Crown Prince Mohammed’s plans.

If the crown prince cannot take the heat for lifting the driving ban, one can only imagine how much harder it will be for him to deliver on tougher promises. Chief among them is getting rid of the guardianship law, which says that every woman must have a male guardian — husband, father, brother, even a son — who can make critical decisions on her behalf, including applying for a passport, traveling outside the country, studying abroad on a government scholarship and marrying.

This is not the first time the crown prince has undermined the reformist credentials on which he is trying to build a new image of his country. Last year, he oversaw the arrest of dozens of writers, intellectuals and moderate clerics who were seen as critics of his foreign policies.

Crown Prince Mohammed also engineered the detention of about 200 wealthy princes and businessmen, forcing them to surrender significant amounts of their wealth, in exchange for their freedom in a questionable anti-corruption campaign.

By raising doubts about the kingdom’s commitment to human rights and the rule of law, such behavior is unlikely to be attractive to the foreign companies the prince is wooing to invest in his country.

Then there’s this: Studies show that economies that exclude half the population, which is to say women, can’t reach their full potential. It will be impossible for Crown Prince Mohammed to legitimately claim the reformist mantle and achieve his economic goals as long as women are prevented from taking their full and rightful place in Saudi Arabia’s future.

Sherrill for New Jersey Democrats

New Jersey’s 11th Congressional District has long been reliably Republican. Voters in its middle-class suburbs and more affluent communities, in the hills of North Jersey, have sent Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen to the House every two years since 1994.

This year, though, things may finally change, since Frelinghuysen has said he will not seek re-election. On June 5, voters in the district will cast primary ballots for what is likely to be its first truly competitive race in years.

The district, moderate enough to give hope to good candidates of either party, even though it was gerrymandered to be more Republican, is one of two in the state that Democrats hope to flip in November’s midterms.

Thanks largely to antipathy toward President Donald Trump, energy in the district this year is on the Democratic side, with several strong candidates vying to replace Frelinghuysen. Mikie Sherrill, a former Navy helicopter pilot and federal prosecutor, is considered the heavy favorite, and has the backing of local party leaders and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Tamara Harris, a social worker with a background in finance, is another impressive candidate with substantial support. She was also endorsed by the Congressional Black Caucus PAC. Mitchell Cobert, a former assistant U.S. attorney, is also a serious candidate. Mark Washburne and Alison Heslin are also in the race on the Democratic side.

Several Republican candidates are competing for their party’s nomination. Among Republicans, state Assemblyman Jay Webber has a fundraising advantage over Antony Ghee, an investment banker and major in the Army Reserve who also has support. And one Libertarian candidate is also making a bid for the seat.

While we have made no judgments about who would be the better candidate in the November general election, the most competitive primary race is among Democrats.

Voters will find little significant policy differences between Sherrill and Harris, who are the leading candidates and hold traditional liberal views, including support for stricter gun control measures and Roe v. Wade.

The primary race has been marked by insinuations from some of Harris’ backers that local and national Democratic Party leaders rejected her in favor of Sherrill because Harris is African-American. We suspect it is Sherrill’s military background and strong showing early in the race, drumming up support for months while Frelinghuysen was still expected to run, that made her so attractive to party leaders. But leaders of both parties should do far more to recruit and support black and Latino candidates, and pursue black and Latino votes with vigor. Democrats rely heavily on African-American voters, and even more so on black women, yet have done far too little to earn their votes.

In New Jersey, it is clear that Harris and Sherrill are both capable of serving their constituents well. But we believe Sherrill is the strongest candidate, and endorse her with confidence.

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