Saudi Arabia’s state security agency released a video last week on an official government Twitter account that listed feminism, homosexuality and atheism among ideologies that fell into the category of “extremism.”
“Extremism in all its forms is a societal scourge,” read the message that accompanied the video, posted to the account of the General Department for Counter Extremism, which showed animated depictions of a long list of views subject to punishment.
But the clip and tweet were abruptly removed on Tuesday, and the agency in charge of the department and the broader leadership attempted to walk its message back.
The video and its removal are the latest signs of complications as Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and de facto leader, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, attempts to present a sweeping overhaul of the social system in a country whose authorities have been steeped in ultraconservative policies for decades.
Prof. Madawi al-Rasheed, a Saudi anthropologist at the London School of Economics, said the incident was emblematic of the internal power struggles and of changes being imposed from on high that have been slow to filter down.
“It’s just symptomatic of the confusion that is taking place in Saudi Arabia,” she said. “It’s like for centuries we wanted you to be pious, religious and we imposed every restriction on you — now we want you to be open and we want to lift all of the restrictions.”
The notoriously repressive nation has long drawn condemnation for governing based on an austere interpretation of Islam that includes strict social codes. But since 2017, Prince Mohammed has moved to ease some social restrictions, introduce a more moderate form of Islam and diversify the oil-driven economy.
A ban on female drivers was lifted, parts of the kingdom’s restrictive guardianship system were rolled back to give women more freedom, and efforts have been made to expand the entertainment and tourism sectors.
But crackdowns on dissent have continued, with scores of activists detained, including a number of prominent women’s rights activists. Reports from their families indicate that they have been subject to torture.
There are still strict norms around social conduct, and allegations of rights abuses are rife. The country also found itself at the center of international outrage after the killing of the dissident writer Jamal Khashoggi by operatives linked to Prince Mohammed at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
The Saudi Presidency of State Security — which is made up of the kingdom’s counterterrorism and domestic intelligence services — issued a statement on Tuesday calling the content in the video shared on Twitter “inaccurate” and said it “contained many mistakes in defining extremism.”
The agency also denounced as “untrue” a report in a state-run outlet, Al Watan, which said that feminists could be jailed and flogged. The government-run Saudi Human Rights Commission also issued a statement confirming that “feminism was not criminalized in Saudi Arabia and that the kingdom accorded the greatest importance to women’s rights.”
But many have accused the Saudi government of hypocrisy for denouncing the video while keeping women’s rights activists behind bars.
Iyad el-Baghdadi, a pro-democracy activist and vocal critic of Prince Mohammed, asked in a tweet: “If women’s rights are so important, why are Saudi Arabia’s top women’s rights activists in prison?”
Professor al-Rasheed said that although it was nearly impossible to know why the initial video was so out of line with the later statement, the law could have been presented to offer an explanation for the harsh treatment of detained women’s rights activists.
Loujain al-Hathloul and Aziza al-Yousef are among the women imprisoned over their activism. They are said to have been tortured and subjected to physical and sexual violence, and Professor al-Rasheed suggested that the video could be a way to justify their treatment.
Professor al-Rasheed disagreed with widespread speculation that the video had been removed because of international pressure, saying the reversal was more likely to be a sign of a bureaucratic rift.
“It’s about a confusion. It’s about forces in the government service who may be there to embarrass him. It’s not about the outside world making a big fuss about it,” she said. “I think it’s a serious problem symptomatic of perhaps a fomenting dissent against Mohammed bin Salman.”
In a statement after the removal of the video, the security agency blamed a single person who prepared and published the video, saying he had “acted wrongly and on his own behalf.”
“The person was brought in for investigation, and steps were taken to deal with the social media hierarchy in order to ensure that such mistakes were not made again,” the agency said. The initial article from Al Watan outlining punishments for feminists has also been removed.
But few believe the video and report could have been created and published without the knowledge of more senior figures in the government, and rights groups say the publication of the video showed an undercurrent of intolerance in Saudi Arabia.
Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa director, called the video “outrageous” in a statement on Tuesday.
“This announcement is extremely dangerous and has serious implications for the rights to freedom of expression and life, liberty and security in the country,” Ms. Morayef said. “It peels away the veneer of progress under Mohammed bin Salman and reveals the Kingdom’s true intolerant face which criminalizes people’s identities, as well as progressive and reformist thoughts and ideas at home.”