Women's arrests cast doubt on Saudi Crown Prince's reforms

In a 2014 file photo, Aziza al-Yousef drives a car in Riyadh as part of a campaign to defy the driving ban.

(CNN)A recent crackdown on women's rights activists in Saudi Arabia has cast doubt over a much-touted reform agenda led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

At least 11 women's rights activists have been arrested in recent weeks, according to rights groups, and are believed to be faced with counterterror charges punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
The State Security Presidency, a powerful security apparatus that reports directly to the King and 32-year-old Crown Prince, had been monitoring the detainees prior to their arrest, according to Saudi Arabia's official news agency.
At least four of the detainees have been released in recent days, according to Amnesty International.
    But while the arrests were lauded in Saudi Arabia's mainstream press -- government-aligned media branded the activists "traitors" -- international groups and pundits, some close to the Saudi government, said the move was difficult to defend.
    One Saudi activist who previously supported the Crown Prince's ambitious reform agenda said he has felt disillusioned by him in recent weeks, canceling plans to return to the kingdom.
    Others staunchly opposed to the Crown Prince have said that the crackdown has "exposed the myth" of the reform agenda.
    Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May greets Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman  outside 10 Downing Street on March 7, 2018.
    The arrests come on the heels of Mohammed bin Salman's month-long tour of Western countries, where he was billed as a modernizer spearheading change in the ultra-conservative kingdom.
    They also come in the run-up to June 24, when Saudi Arabia is set to lift a notorious ban on female drivers. Many of those arrested are high-profile campaigners against the law which barred women from getting behind the wheel, leading analysts to question why the young Crown Prince would go after activists who seemingly share his reformist goals.

    Not enough change

    Prior to bin Salman's rapid rise to power in recent years, Saudi Arabia's largely fundamentalist clergy held considerable sway over policy-making in the kingdom. The arrest of some prominent clerics in recent months, in addition to a series of moves that consolidated the Crown Prince's grip on decision-making, helped to clip the clergy's influence.
    Over the past year, Saudi Arabia opened its first cinema in decades and loosened several morality laws that discriminate against women, including its notorious rules requiring that women receive a male guardian's permission to travel, receive an education, and sometimes work and receive healthcare.
    A flyer circulating on social media in Saudi Arabia shows activists with a traitor stamp over each of their faces.
    But those familiar with the detained activists, many of whom were part of global campaigns against the male guardianship laws, say that they wanted more reforms. They say that the activists feared that changes would stop if they did not continue to work for greater rights.
    "Women are given the right to drive (by Mohammed bin Salman), thinking this would be the end of the journey," said Madawi al-Rasheed, a Saudi visiting professor at the London School of Economics.
    "But I think those women believe that the journey has just begun because the ceiling is very high and they're not going to stop at the prospect of driving a Jeep in Saudi Arabia. They have demands that need to be honored," she added.
    One of the most high-profile activists arrested in recent months, Loujain Al-Hathloul, was previously detained for 73 days in 2014 after trying to drive from the United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia. Another detained activist, Aziza al-Yousef, 70, is one of the country's earliest activists for the right to drive and signed a petition in recent years calling for an end to guardianship laws.
     This Nov. 30, 2014 image made from video released by Loujain al-Hathloul, shows her driving towards the United Arab Emirates - Saudi Arabia border before her arrest on Dec. 1, 2014, in Saudi Arabia.
    Eman al-Nafjan, a third detainee, is a well-known blogger who drove in Riyadh in 2013 as part of a protest that attracted international attention.
    "Those arrested -- Loujain, Aziza, Eman, and the others -- all agree with social changes underway in the Kingdom," read a report by the Washington, DC-based Project on Middle East Democracy.
    "But they have not been content with them, believing that Saudi women still face structural discrimination and other disa