Podcast with Hala al-Dosari: How Exiled Saudi Arabian Activists Are Quietly Building a Resistance Movement

Published January 13th, 2020 - 09:42 GMT
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(AFP/FILE)

The weaponization of social media has been a feature of international politics since the so-called Green Revolution in Iran in 2009. That grassroots movement for reform depended heavily on coordination via Twitter, and foreshadowed the cross-regional reliance on Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp during and after the Arab Spring. 



But just as social media has become an invaluable tool in organizing resistance, it is now being wielded by tech-savvy states to sow misinformation, surveil dissidents and manufacture consent. Nowhere are the promises and dangers of social media more apparent than in the case of Mohammed bin Salman’s Saudi Arabia. 

There, Twitter has become a battleground for independent human rights activists and Saudi-state sponsored accounts to spar against one another. The Saudi regime, as well as a regime-linked NGO, is paying Instagram influencers and celebrities to portray the country as welcoming and inclusive even as the regime engages in a political crackdown. State-sponsored troll factories operate around the clock, churning out pro-Saudi messages and amplifying voices friendly to the regime.

State-sponsored troll factories operate around the clock, churning out pro-Saudi messages and amplifying voices friendly to the regime.

Both the Saudi state and independent activists recognize the uniquely direct and relatively unregulated power social media has in shaping global opinions. 

Most of Saudi’s prominent human rights activists have either been completely cut off from the outside world as they sit in jail cells inside the country, or live in a self-imposed exile where digital activism remains one of the few, key ways they can reach a broad audience inside the region. 

Al Bawaba spoke with Hala al-Dosari, a Saudi human rights activist who stands on the vanguard of digitally organizing a resistance movement to the Saudi regime while in exile.


Hala al-Dosari (PBS)

A women’s health expert who worked with Saudi’s Ministry of Health to combat gender based violence and discrimination and a champion for reinstating women’s right to drive, al-Dosari now lives in the U.S. as a fellow at MIT’s Center for International Studies. Previously, she was the Washington Post’s Inaugural Jamal Khashoggi Fellow and a scholar at NYU’s School of Law. She’s the 2018 winner of Human Rights Watch’s Alison Des Forges Award for Extraordinary Activism, Freedom House’s 2016 Freedom Award, and she’s afraid to ever return to her home country.

Previously, she was the Washington Post’s Inaugural Jamal Khashoggi Fellow and a scholar at NYU’s School of Law. She’s the 2018 winner of Human Rights Watch’s Alison Des Forges Award for Extraordinary Activism, Freedom House’s 2016 Freedom Award, and she’s afraid to ever return to her home country.

According to al-Dosari, Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) rose to power as an outsider with no base of support, and immediately began centalizing a narrative of popular reform around himself, creating a cult of personality in the process. And while his efforts “mesmerized” a number of journalists, businessmen and politicians abroad, Saudi human rights activists inside Saudi and abroad were horrified.

At the same time as Bin Salman launched a comprehensive domestic reform, he ordered the imprisonment and torture of prominent human rights activists in Saudi, and his top aide, Saud al-Qahtani, began a sweeping surveillance program to target and harass dissident Saudi nationals across the world. 
 

“It’s not safe for me to go back.” 

“It wasn’t like regular arrests. It was as if the state had a personal interest in completely discrediting these people,” she says.

Compared to prior arrests of dissidents, which were done in secret with no mention of their disappearance in the media, arrests under bin Salman have been accompanied by a swell of government-sponsored smears to portray them as traitors.

“The feminists were targeted in a most vicious way, and brutally tortured for their public engagement,” she recalls, adding that her work was portrayed as hostile to the state and non-patriotic.

“It’s not safe for me to go back.” 

Al-Dosari is careful to note that autocratic regimes’ ‘charm offensives’ can only work if they find a receptive international audience, and have found that audience in a small cadre of political elites from the U.S. and U.K. 

"I’m hopeful that we will manage to come up together to basically create an independent place for people to voice their concerns and demand some kind of accountability."

“But it’s also that the allies in the Western world would support this kind of support and coverage for those leaders so that they can sell more arms; they can exchange any kind of moral or ethical relations for money, basically,” noting that Trump’s close relations with bin Salman are cemented not through any official channels but through familial ties.

Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is reportedly close friends with bin Salman, and WhatsApp’s the names of prominent Saudi dissidents to bin Salman to facilitate an internal purge of the country’s elite.

Independent activists like al-Dosari have been systematically excluded from the U.S.’ government’s approach to its relations with Saudi, according to al-Dosari, effectively accomplishing one of MbS’ key goals to centralizing power around him: silencing other voices.

But slowly and surely, al-Dosari as well as other exiled activists are banding together to develop a network of resistance, leveraging podcasts and conferences to synthesize a powerful anti-government message.

“We are scattered across Europe, the U.S. and Canada… but I’m hopeful,” she says.

slowly and surely, al-Dosari as well as other exiled activists are banding together to develop a network of resistance

“We are more relevant than any kind of propaganda. So I’m hopeful that we will manage to come up together to basically create an independent place for people to voice their concerns and demand some kind of accountability.”

To listen to the full conversation with Hala al-Dosari, click here:

 

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