LONDON — Saudi Arabia is escalating its crackdown on activists who had pressed for the right of women to drive, bringing the number arrested to at least 11 and publicly branding them as “traitors.”
The acceleration of the crackdown has come as a surprise because the kingdom is expected, in just three weeks, to grant the activists a victory by allowing women for the first time to drive. An international uproar over the arrests now threatens to drown out the accolades that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the dominant force in the kingdom, had previously won for announcing the rule change.
But both supporters and critics of the crown prince said Wednesday that he appeared determined to portray the change as a royal gift to Saudi women rather than any concession to domestic or international pressure, even if silencing the activists overshadows the reform.
“That sort of change has to be seen as emanating from the government itself rather than the West,” said Ali Shihabi, founder of the Washington-based Arabia Foundation and a supporter of the crown prince. He argued that the activists had failed to appreciate the balancing act that the crown prince faced in checking the power of the clerical hierarchy and its conservative supporters, who opposed allowing women to drive.
“These activists got carried away with being celebrated in the West as ‘the activists driving change’ and so on,” he said. “It all sounds nice and sexy in New York and London and Paris but in reality it is deadly.”
He added: “It further provokes an already resentful conservative and clerical class when the government is working very hard to temper their resentment. It puts meat on the bones of the accusation from the religious class that this is all a Western-driven agenda.”
Rights advocates said the crackdown discredited the claims by the crown prince to be a liberalizing reformer.
“The crown prince wants to be the author, the creator, the narrator and the controller, and nobody else gets a say,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director for Human Rights Watch. “So if you think of ‘reform’ as changes that he happens to think are a good idea, like letting women drive, he supports that. But if you think of ‘reform’ as opening up space for Saudis to have rights as people, or participate as citizens with views on the reforms, then he is the opposite of a reformer.”
Saudi prosecutors have not disclosed the names of those arrested or any charges filed against them, but a government statement has accused them of “suspicious contact with foreign parties” and of undermining “security and stability.”
Pro-government news outlets and social media accounts have called them “traitors,” with one account splattering the word in red across their faces, or as “agents of embassies,” suggesting they worked for foreign governments. One newspaper said they could face as much as 20 years in prison for treason.
News reports have identified some of those arrested. One of the best known, Loujain al-Hathloul, is in her late 20s; she was previously 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. Others include a retired professor with five children and eight grandchildren; an assistant professor of linguistics who is also a blogger in English and the mother of four; a psychotherapist in her mid-60s; and a twentysomething nurse in Riyadh, the Saudi capital. One of a handful of men arrested is a lawyer who defended Ms. Hathloul when she was previously arrested.
Crown Prince Mohammed, 32, is unapologetically authoritarian, and his defenders argue that top-down authoritarianism is the only way to modernize the conservative kingdom, whether by gradually opening up more freedoms for women or by liberalizing the economy to attract foreign investment.
But the crown prince badly tarnished his image as an economic reformer when he ordered the arrests last fall of about 200 wealthy businessmen and officials, incarcerating them in a Ritz-Carlton Hotel and forcing many to surrender assets in exchange for their freedom. His supporters called it a crackdown on corruption. Critics — and investors — saw it as a shakedown.
Allowing women to drive was among the most visible steps the prince has taken to loosen the kingdom’s ultraconservative social codes, but the arrests of the activists are casting a shadow over that change, too.
“A P.R. campaign calling yourself a reformer means nothing if you are arresting peaceful activists simply because they are calling for reforms,” said Samah Hadid, the Middle East director of campaigns for Amnesty International.
Mr. Shihabi of the Arabia Foundation said he, too, was shocked when he first heard the news. “The lack of an adequate explanation until today is very damaging to the kingdom.”