This article originally appeared on Bloomberg:
Few would describe Mohammed Al-Arefe as a defender of women’s rights. In one infamous video, the Saudi cleric explains exactly how a man should beat his wife.
But when the government decided to allow women to drive cars, up popped Al-Arefe on state TV to say what a good idea that was. “A modest woman will remain modest whether she drives or not,” he told the nation. Other religious leaders, once hostile to any departure from traditional ways, joined the chorus of approval.
The kingdom’s powerful preachers were getting with the program. A couple of weeks earlier, they’d seen what happens to those who don’t. More than a dozen prominent clerics, activists and businessmen were arrested and accused of “pushing an extremist agenda.”
Under Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, Saudi Arabia is seeking to reintroduce itself to the world — opening its economy to global business, and its society to practices once deemed un-Islamic. At the same time, the limited space for criticism and debate that once existed in this absolute monarchy is being stifled.
The kingdom has become “more repressive than in the past,” said James Dorsey, a Middle East specialist at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. “It’s a break with the era of King Abdullah, who often sought to forge consensus,” he said. “The Salmans do not tolerate any criticism whatsoever.”
Read the full story at Bloomberg.