Women's arrests cast doubt on Saudi Crown Prince's reforms

In a 2014 file photo, Aziza al-Yousef drives a car in Riyadh as part of a campaign to defy the driving ban.

(CNN)A recent crackdown on women's rights activists in Saudi Arabia has cast doubt over a much-touted reform agenda led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

At least 11 women's rights activists have been arrested in recent weeks, according to rights groups, and are believed to be faced with counterterror charges punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
The State Security Presidency, a powerful security apparatus that reports directly to the King and 32-year-old Crown Prince, had been monitoring the detainees prior to their arrest, according to Saudi Arabia's official news agency.
    At least four of the detainees have been released in recent days, according to Amnesty International.
    But while the arrests were lauded in Saudi Arabia's mainstream press -- government-aligned media branded the activists "traitors" -- international groups and pundits, some close to the Saudi government, said the move was difficult to defend.
    One Saudi activist who previously supported the Crown Prince's ambitious reform agenda said he has felt disillusioned by him in recent weeks, canceling plans to return to the kingdom.
    Others staunchly opposed to the Crown Prince have said that the crackdown has "exposed the myth" of the reform agenda.
    Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May greets Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman  outside 10 Downing Street on March 7, 2018.
    The arrests come on the heels of Mohammed bin Salman's month-long tour of Western countries, where he was billed as a modernizer spearheading change in the ultra-conservative kingdom.
    They also come in the run-up to June 24, when Saudi Arabia is set to lift a notorious ban on female drivers. Many of those arrested are high-profile campaigners against the law which barred women from getting behind the wheel, leading analysts to question why the young Crown Prince would go after activists who seemingly share his reformist goals.

    Not enough change

    Prior to bin Salman's rapid rise to power in recent years, Saudi Arabia's largely fundamentalist clergy held considerable sway over policy-making in the kingdom. The arrest of some prominent clerics in recent months, in addition to a series of moves that consolidated the Crown Prince's grip on decision-making, helped to clip the clergy's influence.
    Over the past year, Saudi Arabia opened its first cinema in decades and loosened several morality laws that discriminate against women, including its notorious rules requiring that women receive a male guardian's permission to travel, receive an education, and sometimes work and receive healthcare.