RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — An electronic billboard at an upscale Saudi mall flashes an advertisement for a designer fragrance before switching to images of soaring F-16s and King Salman saluting the troops. "The response has come to you who threaten the nation," the caption says. "To those who test me, take this war as a reply."
The message is directed at the Iranian-allied Shiite rebels in Yemen who have been the target of a three-week Saudi-led air campaign. The nationalist fervor whipped up by the war has put calls for reform in the kingdom on hold as people rally behind their king, the troops and the status quo.
State-run newspapers, radio talk shows and TV programs are almost entirely focused on the war against the Yemeni rebels, known as Houthis, with local media portraying it as part of a regional struggle against Tehran and its allies in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.
Saudi human rights activists who consistently speak out about the need for political and societal reforms declined to speak to The Associated Press or did so only on condition of anonymity, saying they fear arrest in the current climate. In neighboring Bahrain, at least three people have been detained for criticizing their country's participation in the Saudi-led campaign.
One Saudi rights activist said she and a group of academics were planning to launch a campaign and release videos this month challenging Saudi Arabia's male guardianship laws, which give men powerful sway over women's lives and require females to seek a male relative's permission to travel abroad or undergo certain medical procedures. The project was indefinitely suspended, with those in charge of its research saying that it was inappropriate to talk about such issues while the country is in a state of war.
Another political activist, who is facing trial, said people fear being seen as traitors if they question aspects of the war or press for reforms.
For average Saudi citizens like Mohammed Abu Ali, a man in his 60s selling traditional swords in an open-air Riyadh market, the royal family is the glue that keeps the country together.
"From the day that (King) Abdulaziz unified the country there's been security, until the final hour," he said.
Saudi Arabia was largely spared from the popular uprisings that swept the region starting in 2011, but has been alarmed by the expansion of Iranian influence and the rise of radical groups like the Islamic State. It is taking part in U.S.-led airstrikes against the IS group in Syria and is a leading backer of Syrian rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar Assad, a close ally of Iran.
Riyadh says its aim in Yemen is to restore the internationally recognized president, who fled to Saudi Arabia last month, and to halt the power grab by the Houthis. Iran has provided political and humanitarian support to the rebels, but denies arming them.
As the kingdom has moved to counter perceived threats across the region it has increasingly cracked down on dissent at home. Last year, Saudi Arabia approved sweeping anti-terrorism legislation that has been applied to civil rights activists, including human rights lawyer Waleed Abul-Khair, who is serving a 15-year sentence on charges related to his political activism.
King Salman has made security his top priority since assuming power three months ago. In keeping with tradition, he pardoned a number of prisoners after ascending to the throne, but not political activists. In 2006, his late predecessor King Abdullah, after being crowned the year before, pardoned three prominent reformers who had been serving lengthy sentences for criticizing the government.
In one of his first moves as king, Salman named his nephew, Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, to the post of deputy crown prince, placing him second in line to the throne. The king also named his son as defense minister. Both were given top posts in a powerful council in charge of all political and security affairs.
Gregory Gause, head of the International Affairs Department at Texas A&M University, said the king doubled down on the security strategy by making the Interior Minister such a prominent part of the new order.
The move also reflects genuine concern over security. The Islamic State group has repeatedly called on its followers to target security forces and Shiites in Saudi Arabia, and extremists have carried out a string of small-scale attacks in recent months.
Despite the growing unrest, the government has shown some leniency.
A travel ban was lifted for Suleiman al-Ouda, a popular religious figure jailed for five years in the 1990s for inciting opposition to the government. Two Saudi women jailed for defying a ban on female driving were released, though the charges against them have not been dropped and they cannot leave the country. Dozens of Islamist lawyers who were barred from practicing law were granted permission to work again. And the court-ordered flogging of liberal blogger Raif Badawi, who was found guilty of insulting Islam, appears to have been suspended, though he remains in prison.
"We could be surprised, but I think that the signals so far are that security remains the foremost priority, that there's no inclination for broader political reform or change, or even a loosening up of the environment for political speech," Gause said.
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