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Saudi woman arrested for promoting reforms on Twitter and Snapchat | Saudi Arabia

A young women’s rights activist in Saudi Arabia has been jailed for having Twitter and Snapchat accounts that support recent social reforms but also demand more basic rights within the kingdom, it has emerged.

Manahel al-Otaibi, a 29-year-old certified fitness trainer and artist who was arrested in November 2022, regularly promotes women’s empowerment on her social media accounts. Among other allegations, Otaibi has been accused by Saudi authorities of using the hashtag — which translates to #societyisready — to call for an end to male guardianship rules.

Otaibi has not been convicted or sentenced and remains in custody. But similar previous cases have shown that public demands for women’s basic rights — including inheritance rights and the ability to end marriages to abusive husbands — are seen as inflammatory.

The case marks the latest number of Saudis jailed for using social media accounts to push for reforms or challenge Saudi authorities. Salma al-Shehab, another Saudi woman and former PhD student at the University of Leeds, was sentenced to more than 30 years in prison by a terrorism court for having a Twitter account and following and retweeting dissidents and activists.

Otaibi’s social media accounts portray her as a young progressive woman with a passion for fitness, art, yoga and travel, while also advocating for women’s rights.

As part of a wider campaign to promote the kingdom and tourism, Saudi Arabia is trying to project an image of a country that has eased strict rules for women, including their dress and ability to go out to work. But the government continues to crack down on Saudi women who call for more fundamental reforms.

Lina al-Hathloul, a Saudi activist living outside the kingdom who has been campaigning for her sister Loujain’s travel ban, said: “Al-Otaibi’s case is yet another example of Saudi Arabia’s empty promises of reform. An example. Saudi women are still imprisoned and face sham trials for demanding their rights, or simply believing they are now free to wear what they want.”

In addition to her use of social media, which religious police reported to authorities, Otaibi was accused of not wearing “decent” clothing, court documents show. Her sister, Fouz al-Otaibi, was also accused of not wearing decent clothing but fled Saudi Arabia before being arrested. Another sister, Maryam, is a well-known women’s rights advocate who was detained, imprisoned and eventually released in 2017 for protesting guardianship rules.

Khalid Aljabri, a Saudi expert and commentator on U.S.-Saudi relations, said: “Manahel’s case is an example of the hypocrisy and selective application of draconian laws by the Saudi government, which hosts foreign Instagram models and promotes tourism by posting swimsuit photos, but Saudi women Jailed for posting pictures without the abaya.”

The government of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has routinely targeted Twitter users as part of a wide-ranging domestic and international crackdown that has included planting spies within the company to extract information seen as posing a threat to the royal family. Threats to families of confidential user data of anonymous Twitter accounts.

Meanwhile, the prince controls a major indirect stake in Twitter through the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund (PIF).

According to previous news reports, Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal is one of the world’s wealthiest investors, controlling the Twitter’s biggest investment, and a $250m (£200m) stake in Snapchat.

The Saudi investor has not been seen outside of Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates since his arrest and detention at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh in 2017, reportedly as part of a massive so-called “anti-corruption” campaign ordered by the crown prince. Purge. Alwaleed denied any ill-treatment or torture in an interview with Bloomberg a few weeks after his release in 2018, but acknowledged at the time that he had reached an “understanding” with the Saudis that was “confidential and secret between me and the government.”

According to the Snapchat company blog, Snapchat advertises itself as a website where users in Saudi Arabia can “feel free to live in the moment and be themselves.”

“In Saudi Arabia, Snapchatter is championing transparency and reimagining life online as something that feels real, fulfilling and genuinely fun,” it said. An April 2023 article on Arabian News, the Saudi state-sponsored news site, described how Snapchat agreed to a recent partnership with the Saudi Ministry of Culture to help Saudis gain “hands-on experience and training in augmented reality.”

Snapchat did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Guardian sent a request for comment to the Twitter press office and got a poop emoji in response, the company’s automated response to media inquiries since Musk took over.

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