A fresh-faced girl in jeans and a striped T-shirt sprints from a bleak street and leaps into a gold flower-shaped portal that whisks her away to a futuristic world where she can fly above pristine rivers and soar past trees and green walkways before landing on a rooftop where plants grow and rivers flow. She is in The Line, a next-gen, vertically-layered, zero-carbon city that will be built in the deserts of the world’s leading oil exporter.
This is the vision of Saudi Arabia being projected around the globe today. Its de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman says The Line is a “civilizational revolution that puts humans first based on a radical change in urban planning”.
His words will ring very hollow to Salma al-Shehab, a Saudi mother-of-two who was studying for her PhD at Leeds University and who has just been jailed for 34 years for using Twitter and retweeting activists who support women’s rights.
Shehab was arrested last year when she returned home on holiday from Leeds. The 34-year-old, who has two young sons, was charged with using an internet website to “cause public unrest and destabilise civil and national security”. At her original trial in the notorious Specialised Criminal Court in March, she was sentenced to six years in jail but then in August, an appeals court upped the jail term to 34 years and a 34-year travel ban.
“They are absolutely empty charges,” said Dana Ahmed, a Middle East researcher for Amnesty International. “There’s nothing in them that should even be criminalised under Saudi law, and certainly not under international laws … She’s an outspoken woman from a religious minority, the Shia minority, who’ve long suffered repression and crackdown from the government and she has used her voice independently to speak her mind.”
Human rights defenders say this is the harshest sentence handed down to a peaceful activist in modern times. It is also a terrifying reminder that the reality of life for many Saudis under bin Salman’s regime is a world away from the slick, glossy world depicted in the adverts for the as-yet fictional The Line.
Far from soaring above the earth, women are still oppressed in the kingdom, the death penalty is regularly imposed – 81 people were killed in a mass execution in March – and scores of ordinary people disappear each year. Human rights groups describe an unrelenting crackdown on freedom of speech.
Shehab isn’t even a particularly outspoken activist. Her Instagram profile described her as a dental hygienist, a medical educator and a lecturer at Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman University. Her family lives in Saudi Arabia. Ahmed says bin Salman’s regime is using the case to silence dissent and activism through fear.
“Anyone who dares to speak their mind now can be sentenced to three decades of prison … It sends a really chilling message … Someone could be digging out your tweets or anything you’ve said in support of an activist or in support of women’s rights and you could be sentenced to over three decades of prison … This is what’s alarming and a bit new about Salma’s case – it’s not just the most prominent or outspoken activists that are being targeted. It’s any average person.”
Amnesty says Shehab was held in solitary confinement for 285 days and subjected to repeated interrogations. She was also denied access to legal representation throughout her pre-trial detention, including during interrogations. Now she is being held in the Al-Mabahith prison in the eastern coastal city of Dammam. She has one more chance to appeal the ruling before the end of the month.
Rights group ALQST said it feared Shehab’s sentence might signal “the start of a new trend that the Saudi authorities will follow in the days ahead, as a mechanism for punishing all who criticise either their domestic or foreign policies.” It said this was of particular concern now that normal diplomatic relations are being restored with other countries.
After Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered and dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018, Joe Biden, who was then running for the US presidency, said he would make Saudi Arabia into a global pariah. A UN investigation described the murder as an “extrajudicial killing for which Saudi Arabia is responsible” while US intelligence agencies said bin Salman approved the murder. Riyadh has always denied involvement, blaming rogue agents instead.
Now, Russia’s war in Ukraine has presented bin Salman with an opportunity for rehabilitation as gas-and-oil-dependent states hunt for alternative energy sources.
Biden visited the kingdom in July and was photographed fist-bumping bin Salman. French President Emmanuel Macron hosted the Saudi leader in Paris later that same month. Outgoing British prime minister Boris Johnson spoke of promising signs of progress in the kingdom during a March visit.
Bin Salman has long presented himself as a reformer and he has brought about the loosening of some restrictions. For example, he pushed for the ban on women driving to be lifted and has ended or relaxed restrictions on entertainment and how men and women can mix. But activists say these reforms are a facade.
Lina al-Hathloul, head of monitoring and communications at ALQST, is one of the Saudi activists who Shehab retweeted. She is also the sister of Loujain al-Hathloul, who was jailed in 2018 for opposing the driving ban and subsequently tortured before being freed last year. Loujain is still under a travel ban and unable to leave Saudi Arabia. Lina, who lives outside has not seen her family for years.
She says Shehab’s shocking sentence shows that the crown prince is doubling down on repression of activism and freedom of speech.
“Since the crown prince started to be rehabilitated again, we saw waves of arrests and we knew the fact that he feels emboldened would lead to more repression,” she said. With little support in the country, she added, he needed to woo the west to strengthen his power, but in truth, civil society is being completely muzzled.
She said Shehab was the perfect target because with no family outside the country, the government hoped to keep the case out of the international headlines.
“She tweeted with her real identity … she’s loud and proud, which is everything the Saudi government hates … She is the first of what we see is becoming a pattern. We’ve received information of sentences going up to 50 years of people who were only tweeting,” she said.
Amnesty’s Ahmed wants the UK to use its influence to push for Shehab’s release, both privately and publicly. “A consistent push by the international community, particularly the US, UK and France, needs to happen. They’re the most recent and most strategic allies of Saudi, and this has emboldened Saudi to continue their violations.”
Hillary Benn, MP for Leeds Central and former international development secretary, has written to foreign secretary and likely next PM Liz Truss urging her to raise Shehab’s case with Saudi officials.
“Ms al Shehab has two young sons and a husband, and I am sure you will agree with me that this is an absolutely shocking sentence which is completely at odds with Saudi Arabia’s claims to be improving human rights, in particular for women,” Benn wrote.
Truss, who is the favourite to take over from Johnson as prime minister in September, has in the past declined to overtly criticise Saudi Arabia. In June, she told a foreign affairs committee that Saudi Arabia is “an important partner of the United Kingdom”.
Britain is one of the largest arms suppliers to the kingdom. In 2019, a court ruled that Britain had broken the law by allowing arms sales to Saudi Arabia that might have been deployed in Yemen, where the kingdom is fighting a proxy war against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels at the cost of thousands of civilian lives.
Officials in the British Embassy in Riyadh are understood to have raised concerns about Shehab’s case with the Human Rights Commission, a Saudi government organisation. The US state department has also said it raised “significant concerns”.
Lina Al-Hathloul wants the international community to do more to sideline bin Salman: they should stop trying to rehabilitate him, consider freezing his assets, speak out in defence of prisoners of conscience and meet with Saudi civil society and the diaspora. She believes this could yield results, not only for Shehab.
“Everything is possible with pressure. Saudi Arabia really cares about its image so as long as we destroy this false image they are trying to create, they will have to make concessions including the release of prisoners of conscience. I’m very positive and optimistic that Salma will be released as long as people continue to speak out and fight for women’s rights.”