Why Safar al-Hawali’s arrest in Saudi Arabia matters

Safar Al-Hawali has been arrested for allegedly writing a book entitled ‘Muslims and Western Civilisation’ which contains a chapter that lists a number of advises for the ruling Al-Saud family, clearly intended for Mohamed Bin Salman and implying he is on course for disaster. Al-Hawali is the de facto leader of the Sahwa movment, and islamist-leaning group famous for the “مذكرة النصيحة” or ‘Petition of Advice’ during the first Gulf War in which he criticised King Fahd’s government for inviting the US army to conduct military operations from Saudi Arabia. Although al-Hawali has suffered health issues over the last 10 years, limiting his public appearances, he remains a significantly influential figure in Saudi Arabia.

In the book he is alleged to have written, al-Hawali lists some advice for the government including that:

– All the money that has been given to Trump is a waste and will most likely be used against Saudi Arabia‘s strategic interests;

– Following the UAE‘s lead on regional issues will be disastrous for Saudi interests;

– NEOM project is a waste and the money should be spent on housing and rebuilding infrastructure in Jeddah which suffers from deep structural issues, including an obsolete sewage system;

The book also argues that Al-Saud should not interpret people’s silence as consent. The chapter states that people are very angry and this could explode at any moment. There is little doubt that Safar al-Hawali has been arrested specifically over this chapter.

In his detention, the government will seek to ascertain if he wrote the book. If he did, he is likely to be treated far more harshly than other critics given that his word carries far more weight in Saudi society than his peers. Saudis are also questioning integrity and credibility of other prominent scholars such as Mohamed al-Arefe, Ai’dh al Qarni, and others, who remain silent on Bin Salman’s policies. The logic, according to these Saudis, is that if an old man can criticise the government publicly, knowing the consequences, then how can other religious scholars of conscience remain silent to the domestic political crackdown and questionable foreign policy?

The crux of this issue is that the chapter is clearly addressed to Bin Salman in person who remains intent on arresting all critics. However, this crackdown in Saudi Arabia is very much reminiscent of Egypt’s president Anwar Sadat in ’81 who arrested prominent critics including Haykal and Sheikh Kishk. Sadat was assassinated soon after.

The biggest risk for Bin Salman, as always, comes from royal family. Princes he has arrested and whose careers he has destroyed such as Khaled Bin Talal, AbdulAziz Bin Fahd and Mitab Bin Abdullah are unlikely to stay quite forever. There always remains the possibility that they may ride the waves of discontent reflected by these critics and seek to depose Bin Salman.