DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — A 29-year-old fitness instructor popular on social media in Saudi Arabia faces charges that could see her imprisoned over her posts, becoming the latest person targeted in a crackdown in the kingdom.
The case against Manahel al-Otaibi shows the limits of expression in Saudi Arabia, even for those like al-Otaibi who offer support to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s moves toward liberalizing some aspects of life in the ultraconservative kingdom. Meanwhile, Prince Mohammed has solidified his power in part through imprisoning the country’s elite and others who speak out as his father, 87-year-old King Salman, retains formal control.
“They say they welcome women and that women can wear whatever — but at the end what is happening is that it’s only for Westerners,” said Lina Alhathloul, the head of monitoring and advocacy at ALQST, a London-based group advocating for human rights in Saudi Arabia that’s followed al-Otaibi’s case. Alhathloul’s sister, Loujain, remains in the kingdom due to a travel ban following a prison sentence for her own activism.
“Saudi women are still oppressed, they are still subjected to the male guardianship system and if they speak up they get imprisoned and no one speaks about them. It’s sad, everyone is really scared, everyone gets arrested for nothing.”
Saudi government officials did not respond to a request for comment over al-Otaibi’s arrest.
Al-Otaibi, who posted fitness videos on Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat, faces charges of “defaming the kingdom at home and abroad, calling for rebellion against public order and society’s traditions and customs, and challenging the judiciary and its justice,” according to court documents seen by The Associated Press. Her posts included advocacy for liberal dress codes for women, LGBTQ+ rights and the abolition of Saudi Arabia male guardianship laws.
The documents also accuse her of appearing in indecent clothing and posting Arabic hashtags that include the phrase “overthrow the government”.
It’s not immediately clear how many years of imprisonment she could face, though activists fear it could be lengthy.
Al-Otaibi has been detained since November 2022. Her case has become prominently known in recent days as activists decided to go public. She faces trial in Saudi Arabia’s Specialized Criminal Court, which was established to hear terror cases but now also weighs charges against activists.
Al-Otaibi’s sister, Fouz, similarly faces charges but has fled Saudi Arabia, according to ALQST. Another sister, Maryam, was arrested and freed on a travel ban in 2017 after 104 days in detention for living independently without her father’s permission and protesting male guardianship rules.
Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system requires women to seek their permission for travel, marriage, living arrangements and in legal cases.
Several activists have been arrested for denouncing Saudi rules, or following dissidents who do so, on social media. This includes Salma al-Shehab, a former doctoral student at Leeds University who is currently serving a 27-year prison sentence.
Another is U.S. citizen Saad Ibrahim Almadi, who was sentenced to 16 years in prison over tweets he posted while abroad. Saudi Arabia freed him in March though he faced a travel ban preventing him from returning home to Florida.