A spokesman for the Saudi police said that the arrested are accused of “suspicious contact with foreign entities to support their activities, recruiting some persons in charge of sensitive government positions, and providing financial support to hostile elements outside the country.”
He added that the activists seek to “destabilize the kingdom and breach its social structure and mar the national consistency.”
The arrests come less than a month before the Kingdom is scheduled to lift the ban on women driving, a reform announced last year under Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s plan to expand liberalize aspects of Saudi’s religious law, where women are treated as second-class citizens.
The U.S. State Department has weighed in on the arrests, stating that although they support Saudi Arabia’s reform agenda, they were keeping a “close eye” on events.
“We support space for civil society and also free speech,” said spokeswoman Heather Nauer. “But overall, we’re concerned about it and we’re keeping a close eye on it.”
Human Rights Watch’s Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson argued that authorities should instead be “thanking” the women for their activism.
“The crown prince, who has styled himself as a reformer with Western allies and investors, should be thanking the activists for their contributions to the Saudi women’s rights movement,” she said. “Instead, the Saudi authorities appear to be punishing these women’s rights champions for promoting a goal [Mohammed] bin Salman alleges to support—ending discrimination against women.”
In a recent interview with CBS, Prince Bin Salman claimed that the Kingdom had “come a very long way” in improving women’s rights, having already implemented reforms such as legalizing of yoga, allowing women to attend football matches, and even providing opportunities to work at the Kingdom’s Ministry of Justice.
“Saudi women still have not received their full rights,” he said. “There are rights stipulated in Islam that they still don’t have. We have come a very long way and have a short way to go.”