On April 25th, 2016, young Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman announced the ambitious Saudi Vision 2030. Recognizing a historic dependency on oil wealth and foreign labor, Bin Salman launched this program to diversify and nationalize the Kingdom’s economy. The systematic overhauls of Saudi society included full-scale growth of the entertainment industry, as well as lifting the controversial ban on women driving. Soon after, Bin Salman rose to prominence as a “young progressive,” pushing Saudi Arabia forward and making it a more comfortable, sanitized ally to its historic Western partners. Yet, Saudi Arabia’s biggest young progressives seem to be left behind in this so-called “progression”: women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul and her ex-husband, YouTube celebrity Fahad Albutairi, remain brutally imprisoned for almost two years.
Fahad Albutairi and Loujain al-Hathloul’s names had been near ubiquitous in Saudi Arabia earlier in the decade. As a kid growing up in Jeddah, I vividly recall the uproar caused by a video uploaded to YouTube in 2013 titled “The drive of 26 October: Loujain al-Hathloul drives from Riyadh airport to her house with her father.” However, al-Hathloul is perhaps more famous for driving from the UAE to Saudi Arabia in late 2014, getting arrested upon arrival for two months. The same year, she married Fahad Albutairi, the man responsible for inaugurating the stand-up comedy craze in Saudi Arabia earlier in the decade. In 2013, Fahad also had the most subscribed YouTube channel in the country, and became famously dubbed as “the Saudi Jerry Seinfeld” for his socially observational comedy skits. I was personally a huge fan of Fahad’s growing up, even if I had failed to recognize how daring his comedy was at the time. Whether through illegal driving or a goofy YouTube show, Fahad and Loujain both pushed for social reform in Saudi Arabia, far before the supposed “Vision 2030” came into fruition.
As the decade drew on and Mohammad Bin Salman rose to power, Fahad and Loujain seemed to have been skeptical of the promise of reform. In the last interview I have found of them together back in January 2016, the Economist asked Fahad and Loujain whether or not they see “hope” in the young figure of Mohammad Bin Salman rising to prominence and announcing major changes to Saudi society. Loujain takes a deep breath before answering: “I think he will bring a lot of change into the country as a young leader, but he needs to focus a little bit more on what the people want, instead of what he sees as potential in developed Saudi.” Fahad chimes in on a more hopeful note, saying that eventually change in Saudi Arabia will happen, though he is unsure at what pace it will occur. Little did they both know that this interview would soon become a chilling glimpse into a future Saudi Arabia: a Saudi Arabia that would eventually crush two of its brightest stars.
In March 2018, Loujain and Fahad were both kidnapped and deported to Saudi Arabia from the UAE and Jordan, respectively. Human Rights Watch explains the imprisonment as caused by “anyone expressing skepticism about the crown prince's rights agenda,” making the Economist interview all the more depressing. Later in 2018, rumors emerged that Fahad had been forced to divorce his wife by Saudi authorities. Loujain’s Instagram and Twitter remain hauntingly available to the public. Meanwhile, Fahad’s expansive social media accounts seem to have been entirely wiped off the Internet (his old show remains on YouTube, however.) The reports on Loujain have been bleak: she has faced a range of torture techniques including beating, electric shocks, waterboarding, and rape. Upon visiting her, Loujain’s family claims to have seen her "thighs blackened by bruises" as she was “shaking uncontrollably, unable to hold her grip, to walk or sit normally.” On Fahad, there is complete deafening silence—for all we know, he very well could be dead.
Today in 2019, Saudi Arabia lives on in a strange paradox: to the satisfaction of its economic allies, it has carried out many of Fahad and Loujain’s public demands for social change, yet Fahad and Loujain themselves remain shackled. Women are now allowed to drive and enlist in the Saudi army, new cinemas are littered throughout the nation, and concerts headlined by global superstars such as BTS, Enrique Iglesias, and Mariah Carey seem to be commonplace. Through embarking on “Vision 2030,” Saudi Arabia has proven itself to its allies as an “advanced” and “modern” nation-state capable of embracing “progressive” Western pop culture. Even as it quietly and not-so-quietly represses dissenting figures such as religious television scholars, exiled journalists, and young YouTube stars, Saudi Arabia continues to receive exponentially rising foreign investments and arms sales for its brutal war in Yemen. No amount of press coverage and global criticism seems to diminish the returns of “Vision 2030”—at least, for the time being.
The story of Fahad and Loujain is but one visible, richly-documented story of repressed dissent in contemporary Saudi Arabia. Because of their Internet stardom, Fahad and Loujain’s online content keeps their stories alive and well: depressingly prescient, oftentimes hilarious, and always creative. At the end of the day, Fahad and Loujain were young participants in the democratizing, freewheeling nature of the Internet. In the video of Loujain driving, her father claims “God willing, in ten years, we will be laughing at this video.” It has been 6 years since then, and we are very far from laughing. Yet the videos themselves remain available online as alive, if crushing, reminders of two of the world’s most important, creative young activists of our times—activists who remain abandoned to a torturous prison, as the world continues to funnel money into Saudi Arabia’s hollow gloss.