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Trump's commerce secretary surprised no protesters showed up in Saudi Arabia

After two days traveling with the Trump administration in Saudi Arabia, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said he was surprised by something he didn’t see: any sign of protesters.

“There’s no question that they’re liberalizing their society, and I think the other thing that was fascinating to me, there was not a single hint of a protester anywhere there during the whole time we were there,” Ross told CNBC’s Becky Quick on Monday. “Not one guy with a bad placard.”


When Quick countered that people aren’t allowed to protest in Saudi Arabia, Ross asserted: “The mood was a genuinely good mood … They gave me two gigantic bushels of dates. That was a pretty from-the-heart and genuine gesture.”

While there’s no penal code in Saudi Arabia, the Council of Senior Scholars issued a fatwa in 2011, following the Arab Spring uprisings, officially banning demonstrations, marches, and sit-ins on the grounds that they violate Sharia law.

“People who try to engage in protests face arrests and prosecution and often face many years in jail,” says Adam Coogle, a researcher with Human Rights Watch based in Jordan. “If protesters are accused of violence, they can be sentenced to death,” as two men were in 2014.

That was the case even before the fatwa was announced in 2011. A human rights activist, Mohammad al-Otaibi, was arrested and sentenced to three years in prison for attempting to organize a protest against the 2008-2009 Gaza War, according to Coogle.

“It’s always been taboo,” Coogle added. “Anyone who does it is treated incredibly harshly.”

As for whether Saudi Arabia is liberalizing, Coogle says, “Saudi Arabia officials use minimal reforms to make it appear as though society is liberalizing. They’ve made some small reforms on women’s rights — encouraging women to become educated, encouraging them to join the workforce.”

But they haven’t done away with male guardianship, the set of state-sanctioned, discriminatory policies that requires women to obtain permission from a man — usually a husband, father, or brother — to travel internationally, get married, work, or study.

And as for speech rights: “It’s not liberalizing. It’s going in the opposite direction,” says Coogle.

Ross’s comments are at odds with the State Department’s own assessment of the state of free expression in Saudi Arabia. In its latest report on the country, the department notes: “The law does not provide for freedom of assembly and association, which the government severely limited.”