Saudi Arabia’s cabinet approves criminalisation of sexual harassment amidst criticism for detention of women rights’ activists

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Saudi Arabia’s cabinet approved a measure which criminalises sexual harassment. The Saudi’s state news agency SPA reported that legislation, which awaits an expected royal decree to become law, is the latest in a series of decisions by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), who has presented himself as a reformist.

The Middle East Eye contextualises this report within the efforts taken by the crown prince diversify the Arab world’s largest economy away from oil exports and open up Saudis’ cloistered lifestyles by easing strict social rules and promoting entertainment.

At the same time, MbS has been at the helm of a crackdown on dissent, which has seen scores imprisoned, tortured and stripped of their assets. Women’s rights activists, in particular, have been targeted in recent weeks, with at least 11 detained in the days leading up to this latest measure criminalising sexual harassment.

Human Rights Watch voiced concern on Wednesday over the “vague charges” the activists are facing, adding that many of the country’s activists have disappeared from the activism sphere following the arrests.

“The Saudi government seems so consumed with silencing dissent that even activists who have gone quiet for fear of retribution are being targeted again,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

Earlier, human rights organisations voiced their concern over the detention of women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia, a month before the kingdom removes a ban on female drivers.

The lifting of the ban on women drivers is part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reform programme.

“It is shocking that Saudi Arabia is detaining prominent women’s rights defenders – the real champions behind the lifting of the driving ban – just before they allow all women the right to drive,” Human Rights Watch’s Rothna Begum told Al Jazeera on Wednesday.

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