DAVID GREENE, HOST:
In Saudi Arabia, women are getting ready to take the road for the first time. A ban on driving is going to be lifted on June 24. But as that date approaches, as many as 11 activists who had campaigned for the right to drive have been jailed. Saudi media launched an unprecedented campaign branding these women as traitors. The roundup targeted high-profile activists across three generations. These detentions are seen as a widening crackdown on perceived critics of the government, and they've cast a shadow over recent easing of social restrictions pushed by the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. NPR's Deborah Amos has been following all of this, and she joins us. Hey there, Deb.
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Good morning.
GREENE: So who's been arrested here?
AMOS: You know, these are names that are well-known in the kingdom, almost a dozen so far, as you said, according to human rights organizations, including two men. Some are professors at state-run universities. One is the author of a popular blog. Madeha al-Ajroush, now in her 60s, was also detained. She took part in the first protest movement in 1990, when nearly 50 women dismissed their drivers and they drove out of a Riyadh parking lot. All of them were arrested. They lost their passports. They lost their jobs.
But it's not just the arrest this time, it's how they were arrested - at home by forces from state security. And these people are usually involved in terrorism arrests. The Saudi press has named and shamed them. That is highly unusual. So next month, when Saudi women are finally permitted to drive for the first time, those who did the most to advocate for the cause will be behind bars.
GREENE: What is going on here? I mean, we're just a little more than a month after Saudi Arabia's crown prince toured the U.S. pushing this whole new vision of transformation - right? - saying he's a revolutionary and wants to bring Saudi Arabia into the modern world. How does this all square?
AMOS: Yes. You know, some of Saudi's most ardent defenders have been shocked by this roundup and the media campaign. But there is a pattern. The first roundup came last year for religious leaders who were critical of this power shift in the kingdom when the crown prince was named by his father to be next in line for the throne. Then, you remember, there were detentions of these rich businessmen and princes. They were jailed for months in a five-star hotel in the capital. Then the Saudi leadership said it was a crackdown on corruption. But this latest series of arrests, this is a little bit different. These women have international support. They're well-known activists. And these charges of treason with no detail has raised a lot of international alarms.
GREENE: Well, and does all of this mean that that the crown prince's reforms that he pitched everywhere are derailed?
AMOS: They aren't derailed, but this is a public relations disaster. And it may be that we are looking at the limits of change in the country. It is true that the crown prince did open things for women. They can now join the army. They were allowed to attend sporting events and cultural events. But this is not liberal reforms in this kingdom. This is still an autocratic system. It's a royal system. And the idea, say Saudi watchers, is the crown prince gives, that he doesn't really want anyone to take credit for these openings that he's giving, and he's been very tough with these women.
GREENE: NPR's Deborah Amos for us this morning. Deb, thanks so much.
AMOS: Thank you.
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