In the repressive frenzy that has whirled around SaudiArabia since King Salman came to power in 2015, it would be easy to believe that local Islamic movements are over and done with. The Saudi Muslim Brotherhood was outlawed in 2014 under King Abdullah (reign 2005–2015) and relentlessly suppressed under his successor, Salman.
Muhammad bin Salman, the King’s son and current crown prince, has filled Saudi prisons with Islamic activists of all persuasions, from Salafis to Muslim Brothers and more reformist intellectuals. The country’s most prominent Islamic activists, including Salman al-‘Audah, ‘Awadh al-Garni, Muhammad al-Sharif, and Muhammad al-Hudhayf, were arrested in September 2017, summarily accused of spying, and imprisoned without due process.
Many nationalists, liberals, constitutionalists, and feminists were also arrested in recent months. Being a Saudi activist was never easy; it has rarely been as hard as it is today.
Despite the climate of fear and pervasive state violence, Islamic movements in Saudi Arabia have not disappeared. They are merely in abeyance and are likely to survive. The key to their capacity to rebound lies less in their ideological appeal than in their effective use of the scant resources available in a bleak political and urban landscape.The geography of Saudi cities and suburbs, in particular, might be Islamic activists’ best ally. Since the 1960s, various Islamic movements, including the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafi groups, and armed militants, emerged and took advantage of rapidly sprawling suburban spaces. Urbanization in Saudi Arabia is primarily suburbanization—and Islamic movements, more than other political movements, capitalized on the political opportunities offered by sprawling landscapes. They were able to use these new spaces to recruit and mobilize for a range of activities, including street protests, marches, sit-ins, local elections, and direct action. Islamic movements created highly personalized activist networks scattered in massive metropolitan areas, and this adaptation to their environment has helped them survive past crackdowns. It might allow them to survive the current onslaught too.