LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Now to Saudi Arabia. And if any one thing symbolized recent changes there, it was the decision to allow women to drive, starting this month. It seemed to hail a new era, more liberal and fair, led by a new crown prince. But now, there's been a wave of arrests of activists, including driving activists. NPR's Jackie Northam was there when women were training behind the wheel and hopes were high. Now, she reports on how the narrative has changed.
JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: This is what was creating a positive buzz about Saudi Arabia while we were there - women driving.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Wow.
NORTHAM: A young woman dressed in the cloak-like abaya sits at a driving simulator. It gives her a feel for being behind the wheel of a car, navigating city roads, tight turns and curbs.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: So we've hit curb. We've hit the roundabout. Windshield wipers are on.
NORTHAM: Lifting the driving ban was a huge public relations boost for Saudi Arabia and helped create Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman's image as a bold reformer. But then in mid-May, the Saudi government began arresting some of the very same activists who led the long campaign to overturn the ban. Saudi Arabia's public prosecutor accused the activists of conspiring with suspicious foreign entities.
JAMAL KHASHOGGI: I see two things. It is an authoritarian attitude that is growing, and it is controlling the narrative.
NORTHAM: Jamal Khashoggi, a former editor and columnist with the Al Watan newspaper, says the government wants Crown Prince Mohammed to be seen as the sole person responsible for lifting the female driving ban.
KHASHOGGI: They want him to take all the credit. Basically, there is no room for activism in Saudi Arabia.
NORTHAM: These aren't the first sweeping arrests in the kingdom. Last year, the crown prince rounded up a number of clerics and he confined more than 200 wealthy and influential Saudis at a luxury hotel for three months until they paid a settlement. A lot of that was glossed over because he was opening up the kingdom, curbing the powers of the religious police, allowing entertainment and men and women to mix in public. And then there's his skills as a salesman on full display when he toured the U.S. recently. Bernard Haykel, a Saudi Arabia specialist at Princeton University, has met privately with the crown prince on several occasions.
BERNARD HAYKEL: He's a very charismatic person, and he is a politician's politician. He makes people feel like they're extremely important when he's talking to them.
NORTHAM: John Sfakianakis, the director of economic research at the Gulf Research Center in Riyadh, says Saudi Arabia needed a leader willing to shake things up.
JOHN SFAKIANAKIS: For a very long time, Saudi Arabia was stagnant. Nothing was changing. You know, the ability for this very young man to think this visionary way - you know, he was a gift for this country in many ways.
NORTHAM: But analysts say the crackdown has revived concerns about other decisions the crown prince has made. He led Saudi Arabia into a protracted war with neighboring Yemen, picked a fight with Qatar and forced the brief resignation of Lebanon's prime minister. His father is still king, but the crown prince has amassed enormous power. He's a minister of defense, oversees the economy and its oil industry, and he seems to be a favorite of the Trump administration. At home, though, he brooks no opposition. Saudi columnist Khashoggi says he had to flee the kingdom a year ago after his commentaries ran afoul of the government and that other Saudis, afraid of what will happen next, are also leaving.
KHASHOGGI: I never seen that number of Saudi people in diaspora as now. There are many silent Saudis out of Saudi Arabia today who aren't going back. They will just withdraw to another country and live there silently.
NORTHAM: That's for those who can leave the kingdom. There is a travel ban on family members of people detained in numbers, Khashoggi says, is unprecedented. Khashoggi says many of his friends have ended up in jail. Our efforts to reach Saudis now are difficult. People are dropping off social media and afraid to communicate with the foreign press. During our recent trip to the kingdom, Saudis gave effusive support publicly for the crown prince. Others told us they had little choice. Jackie Northam, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.