OPINION: Strategic Nonviolence Proven Ineffective in Saudi Arabia
In the 1990s, Saudi women began to protest the state-wide ban on female drivers through a textbook method of nonviolent action: they drove their cars through the streets of Riyadh. It was illegal, women were arrested and shunned; some even lost their jobs. The protests continued, but they did not work—until last year.
In Sept. 2017, the Saudi Arabian government announced that the ban on female drivers would be lifted, and in June 2018, it was. Mohammad bin Salman, or MBS, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, was credited with the reform and hailed as “a bastion of modernity” in one of the most conservative countries in the world. Protestors’ regular use of strategic nonviolence achieved a significant reform.
In mid-May, the government began a brutal crackdown on peaceful human rights activists, detaining seven under charges of undermining the “security and stability” of Saudi Arabia. Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, in their article “Drop Your Weapons: When and Why Civil Resistance Works,” consider strategic nonviolence not only an option for achieving change, but “the best strategy for social and political change in the face of oppression.”
They are not alone; strategic nonviolence is widely considered a viable option for achieving change because of its mass appeal and accessibility, and because it imposes “unsustainable costs” on a regime. But what are unsustainable costs to a royal family that owns one of the world’s largest oil reserves and is worth over one trillion dollars?
Widespread civil resistance can weaken the loyalty of economic elites, religious figures, and the state media. In Saudi Arabia, however, recent imprisonment of “disloyal” elites by the royal family has ensured that only the loyal and successfully intimidated remain. In addition, the feminist movement has yet to gain widespread popularity. Their use of strategic nonviolence is still limited and unlikely to sway loyal elites.
In 2011, President Barack Obama released an executive order that was meant to protect the protestors by weakening the economic strength of the Syrian government but, today, Saudi Arabia faces no consequences from the United States for its actions.
Jamal Khashoggi, a US resident, Saudi citizen, and journalist for the Washington Post, was brutally murdered in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul by order of MBS. President Donald Trump has instated no sanctions and no consequences. If the United States did not punish Saudi Arabia for the murder of a US resident and peaceful journalist, then it will not punish Saudi Arabia for abusing and repressing its own peaceful protestors.
Strategic nonviolence works, but not in a state that faces no legitimate consequences for its actions. The state elite are either members of the royal family or fiercely loyal and unlikely to turn against the state. In addition, the state faces no international consequences for its repression of strategic nonviolence. Therefore, since strategic nonviolence does not work, those who wish for widespread reform must turn their attention for other possibilities.