The holy month of Ramadan used to be an occasion for royal amnesties in Saudi Arabia. But instead of granting pardons, Muhammad bin Salman, the crown prince and power behind the throne, has added to the 2,000 or so political prisoners detained since September. Over the past month his goons have arrested 17 liberal activists. Nine are women, some of whom campaigned for the right to drive.
Prince Muhammad has loosened the kingdom's social restrictions. The decades-old ban on female drivers will be lifted on June 24th. But when citizens demand new rights, instead of waiting patiently to be granted them by royal decree, they are often locked up. The effect has been stifling. Before talking politics over the phone, Saudis take precautions, such as using virtual private networks and encrypted dialing services. Many have purged their Twitter accounts or closed them. "Sorry. I'm not ready to talk," writes a once-verbose activist. They are all terrified, says a diplomat.
Prince Muhammad sees no contradiction in all this. His social contract apes that of the United Arab Emirates, which grants subjects social freedoms provided they forgo political ones. In less than a year as crown prince, he has taken direct control of media outlets and big businesses, or appointed his men to their boards. Once-powerful clerics and princely challengers have been squashed. Gone is talk of holding elections for the Shura council, a royally appointed proto-parliament.
The prince has also overhauled the state security police, recruiting former Egyptian officers to hound dissidents. Activists used simply to disappear into custody. Now they are named and shamed after being arrested. Photos of female campaigners appear on the front pages of the press, stamped in red with the words "spies", "traitors" and "agents of embassies". Twitter bots spread the allegations. Spyware, delivered as text messages, combs phones for fresh suspects.
Western firms, skilled in secret psychological operations, have been hired to help shape public opinion. They include SCL Group, the parent company of Cambridge Analytica, the political-data firm that claims to have helped President Donald Trump win election. Before Prince Muhammad's economic- and social-reform drive, SCL Group, a British firm, conducted dozens of focus groups with ordinary Saudis and found evidence of widespread discontent with the monarchy. It advised the regime on how to stay in power.
Prince Muhammad's strategy of suppressing dissent while loosening up in some areas appears calculated. He has made many enemies by sidelining fellow royals, shaking down businessmen, locking up liberals and alienating religious leaders. But few question his rule. Saudis seem to be adapting to the likelihood that one unaccountable man will rule them for decades to come.