>> narrator: tonight on frontline... >> the execution is a signal to all dissidents that they will not tolerate any dissent. >> by executing my father, they have accelerated the change that would come to this country. >> narrator: undercover and inside saudi arabia. >> watch this. >> narrator: the poverty. >> (translated): i'm going to show you how people live here. >> narrator: the protests. the demands for change. >> i try to represent their rights. some of them don't believe that it's their own rights, or they
just fear freedom. >> narrator: and the kingdom at a crossroads. >> saudi arabia is facing some of the biggest challenges it's ever faced. the oil price is low, youth unemployment, regional instability. you could almost argue a perfect storm. >> narrator: tonight, "saudi arabia uncovered." >> frontlinis made possible by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. and by the corporation for public broadcasting. major support for frontliis provided by the john d. and catherine t. macarthur foundation, committed to building a more just, verdant and peaceful world. more information is available at macfound.org. additional support is provided by the park foundation, dedicated to heightening public awareness of critical issues. the john and helen glessner family trust, supporting trustworthy journalism that informs and inspires. the ford foundation, working with visionaries on the front lines of social change
fear has taken over the entire population, from the elderly to young children. the regime wants to keep everything secret. if the truth comes out, it will be the beginning of the end for them. no one can express themselves freely. >> narrator: yasser is a young saudi dissident and activist. he belongs to an underground network that films and publishes videos of life in saudi arabia the government doesn't want the world to see. now he's come to istanbul to collect an undercover camera. for the next six months, he and his fellow activists will be filming secretly. if caught, they could face years in prison. we've disguised yasser's voice for his safety.
>> (translated): yes, there is danger, but the world needs to see how we've been living under persecution and slavery for decades. i will do what i need to do and try to show the awful reality to the world, and whatever will be will be. >> narrator: this is the story of the men and women who are trying to force change in saudi arabia, and the regime that is trying to stop them. yasser lands in the capital of riyadh: a bustling, modern city of more than six million people. saudi arabia is a key u.s. ally in the middle east, and the world's largest oil exporter.
its state oil company is worth an estimated $10 trillion. the face of the new king, salman, looms large over the streets. a single family, the house of saud, has ruled the country since its founding. they subscribe to a strict form of the sunni branch of islam, and the country is run according to sharia law. the royal family and their inner circle are among the wealthiest people in the world. yasser films an avenue of palaces. this is the saudi arabia the world usually sees: a country of wealth and luxury shopping malls. but the global crash in oil prices has hit the saudi economy hard.
>> narrator: although the saudi government has spent billions on social welfare, as much as a quarter of the population is estimated to live in poverty-- a reality rarely seen. >> (translated): i'm going to show you how people live here. >> narrator: yasser brings his hidden camera to a slum on the edge of the holy city of mecca. >> (translated): people are living in real misery here. children selling things. oh, my god. look, it's a dump.
look at the sewage. the way money is spread, it's kept among the ruling family. it's not spread to the people. only what's left, the crumbs, are spread to the people. so there's great inequality between the classes. >> narrator: much of saudi arabia's wealth comes from oil fields in the east of the country, home to the shia muslim minority. one of yasser's fellow activists is filming here. the east has not seen the oil riches like other parts of the kingdom.
it is the heartland of opposition to the regime. it was here, five years ago, that the underground network was born. >> (protestors shouting) >> narrator: as the arab spring sparked revolutions in countries across the middle east, protests erupted in the regional capital, qatif. a young cameraman, ali filfil, began filming the government's response. (gunshots) (gunshots continue) >> narrator: the shia were protesting discrimination by the sunni majority and demanding recognition of their rights. some of the protestors were armed and violent. the government saw them as
a threat to national security. (rapid gunfire) the cameraman, ali filfil, came under fire. >> narrator: ali filfil was shot in the chest. he was one of roughly 20 protess and several police killed over the months that followed. >> (translated): filfil was just trying to get the message out. he sacrificed his life for that. his death was the spark that lit the fire. >> narrator: after the deaths,
the demonstrations escalated, with thousands of shia hitting the streets. one of them was 17-year-old ali nimr. he was outraged at the deaths of the protestors. >> narrator: ali used his cell phone to record himself confronting police near his house. >> (translated): ali is an arab boy, like any other arab boy. he dreams of freedom. he dreams of respect, dignity. >> narrator: despite being warned not to talk to the media, ali's parents decided to speak about their son.
>> (translated): ali went out to protest for human rights. they were meant to be peaceful demonstrations. he was just a 17-year-old asking for social reform. >> narrator: but ali wasn't just an ordinary protester. he was the nephew of sheikh nimr al-nimr, widely seen as the spiritual leader of the shia uprising. >> narrator: for the saudi government, sheikh nimr was a dangerous shia revolutionary,
with ties to their arch-enemy iran, inciting his shia followers at demonstrations. >> (translated): my brother sheikh nimr became an icon. that's the reality. he had a big effect on a whole generation of young people. this might not please some people in power in our country, but that is the bitter truth. >> narrator: sheikh nimr tapped into resentment among the youth in the east of saudi arabia. but now, protests began to spring up across the country as discontented sunnis also took to the streets. for activists like yasser, who is sunni, it felt like the moment they had been waiting for. >> (translated): we all really felt that the time had come when we'd be done with the tyranny
that has ruled for decades. we felt victory was within our grasp. so it was a big disappointment after all we'd done. it was frustrating, shameful, and very sad. >> narrator: in 2012, saudi authorities cracked down hard, rounding up protestors. sheikh nimr was arrested and charged with treason. so was his nephew, ali. >> (translated): ali called from riyadh prison, and he asked me about something that was written in the court papers. he'd been charged with sedition
and treason. ali is a young child. he asked me, "dad, what does that mean?" ali asked me, "what is treason, dad?" >> narrator: a saudi court convicted him of organizing protests by text message and participating in a terror cell. he was sentenced to death. his family says he was tortured into confessing. >> (translated): him being part of a terrorist organization is very far from what ali believes in. it's very far from that. they are only asking for reform. >> (translated): the sentence really shocked me. i didn't expect the judge would dare sentence a young boy
in that way. >> (translated): the regime has no right to execute them. they are sentenced with this because they want to crush any groups that ask for reform in the country. here is my son ali at nursery school with the rest of his class. these are the last pictures i have of him before he was arrested. >> narrator: saudi officials publicly defended the arrests, saying sheikh nimr was inciting terror and attempting to overthrow the government. >> our response is that he's a terrorist. he is as much a religious scholar as osama bin laden was. he was implicated in inciting people, recruiting people, providing weapons and munitions for people, and he was involved in attacks against security peo. >> (translated): ali was used as
an instrument of pressure when it comes to sheikh nimr's case. even if these charges were proved against ali, they don't deserve an execution. this is of course to put pressure on his uncle sheikh nimr nimr. >> narrator: ali joined three other teenage protesters on death row. >> (translated): i might find out at any moment, while listening to the radio or television, hear an announcement about his death from the ministry of interior. we won't know in any other way. it could happen at any moment. >> narrator: the popular uprisi. that ali had been part of was stopped by late 2012.
the king at the time, abdullah, had introduced program of reforms that was widely seen as a way to appease the population. >> from a saudi point of view, d with the arab spring and with other countries, and the government is certainly intent on maintaining stability. my analysis of why the saudi government didn't fall is they're a lot more responsive to their people than the mubarak regime ever was, or gaddafi, or assad. they don't have a traditional democratic system and they're not very tolerant of dissent, but they do listen. they listen and then respond. >> narrator: king abdullah introduced welfare handouts of more than $100 billion, some social reform, and employment opportunities for the poor. at the same time, the regime stepped up its use of strict sharia law to control the population.
>> narrator: in saudi arabia, executions can be carried out publicly with one sword blow to the neck. the underground network tries to distribute videos of public punishments caught on camera. this burmese woman was convicted of sexually assaulting and killing her stepdaughter. >> (screaming) >> narrator: headless bodies are sometimes put on display as a warning. the saudi government says that only the most serious criminals are executed, and punishments are carried out according to sharia law. >> since the arab spring, saudi arabia i think is undergoing an identity crisis. on the one hand, they are
talking about a change in the economy of saudi arabia and genuine political reform. but saudi arabia last year, in 2015, executed more people than ever in recent memory, and the judiciary and the legal system are basically an arm of the regime to institute its policy against dissent. >> (translated): the regime basically shuts down the opposition. it imprisons them. it attacks them. i don't think this is islam. all the people are angry, but the problem is they can't speak. everyone is scared of being imprisoned. >> narrator: when activists campaign publicly for change in saudi arabia, they risk arrest as heretics or terrorists.
>> narrator: hala dosari, who worked for the ministry of health, began to post video messages pushing for reform. she has now left saudi arabia. >> in saudi arabia, criticizing the government, criticizing religious people are considered as acts of terror. people are reporting on each other, targeting their fellow citizens. so everyone becomes more religious than ever, everybody becomes more pro-government than ever. so we're going into a fascist society. >> narrator: inside one of saudi arabia's upscale shopping malls, yasser films the men who enforce the country's islamic laws: the
saudi religious police. dressed in traditional islamic clothing, they patrol the streets and shopping malls. their official title is the committee for the promotion of virtue and the prevention of vice. activists have been filming and sharing videos to expose their practices, and to show ordinary saudis standing up to them. >> narrator: they force women to cover themselves and drive people out of cafes to go and pray. these rules are based on a strict form of sunni islam known as wahhabism. it is the religion on which saudi arabia was founded. here, the religious police are smashing bottles of alcohol they've confiscated.
>> narrator: the religious police break up groups of young people playing music in public. but yasser films his friends heading to a park to play the lute. >> (translated): they're warning us, telling him if they see him play, there will be trouble. for me, music is my passion. it's a dream for me to play. but to them, it's immoral. it's a vice. it's a disgrace. it doesn't just come from the regime, but now others have started to believe this too. >> narrator: in recent years, the saudi government has made efforts to rein in the religious police, but they still have wide authority and act with autonomy. yasser and his friends have been here for less than five minutes when the religious police
>> narrator: the state wahhabi ideology is taught to saudi children from an early age. yasser films a 14-year-old boy who shows him the books they use at his school. >> narrator: saudi arabia says it has made progress reforming its textbooks, removing the worst examples of prejudice. but opposition activists, especially those from the shia community, see religious education as another way the
regime controls the population. >> the saudi education system has been intended as an insurance policy, as a security measure to protect the ruling family. and to mislead the millions of students into hatred of other religions, other cultures, and toward the saudi ruling family. >> narrator: despite promises of reform, the saudi rulers have also tied themselves to the powerful conservative clerics who are supported by much of the population.
in 2012, one secular activist publicly criticized the relationship between the rulers and the clerics. >> narrator: raif badawi wrote a blog on which he promoted liberal values, and questioned the role of religion in saudi life. >> narrator: badawi, a father of three young children, was arrested in 2012 and sentenced to ten years in prison and 1,000 lashes for insulting islam. >> (translated): this is the square where they flogged the brother raif badawi. >> narrator: yasser films the square in the city of jeddah, where raif was lashed in
public in january 2015. the lashing was secretly filmed by an activist. >> (translated): i believe that raif has been true to himself. i have a lot of respect for him. he didn't carry arms. he didn't kill anyone. he didn't blow anything up. all he did was express an opinion. >> narrator: raif has spent most of his sentence in one of saudi arabia's most notorious prisons, breiman. the underground network managed to smuggle cameras into breiman.
what they found was chaos and lawlessness, and prisoners openly injecting heroin. >> narrator: here, a prisoner is abused by his fellow inmates. >> narrator: raif badawi spent almost four years locked up here. his lawyer and dozens of other activists are also serving long jail sentences. (men shouting and cheering)
>> narrator: the family says they have only received rare phone calls from raif since he's been imprisoned. ensaf runs a campaign for her husband's release and is trying to keep her children's spirits up. >> (translated): although he's in jail, it's as if we're all serving the sentence. the most valuable thing in our life is not with us. it's been four years since the children have seen their father.
it's very difficult. it's so hard, but we have to carry on. >> narrator: ensaf says she's counting on raif's case being reviewed by the saudi courts. >> (translated): honestly, i am always hopeful. this christmas, i hope he will be with us, but i just don't know. i have never received any good news from saudi arabia. >> narrator: in january 2015, two weeks after raif badawi was lashed in public, the saudi ruler king abdullah died. his half-brother, 79-year-old salman, came to the throne. salman was the sixth son of saudi arabia's founder,
ibn saud, to become king. the world was watching to see if he would continue the reforms begun in the wake of the arab spring. >> king salman is probably the last of the sons of al saud to be king, so you've got that generational succession happening at a time when there are unprecedented challenges both internally and externally. one of the dilemmas in saudi arabia is you have lots of competing views. there's a kind of liberal elite who want the right conditions for business. there's a conservative islamic tendency who doesn't want as much engagement with the west as saudi has. there are women who want more
rights, there are conservative women who don't. so it's part of a very complex situation in saudi arabia, but it's not standing still. saudi arabia isn't standing still. the argument is about the pace of change. >> narrator: before he died, king salman's brother had promised that women would be able to vote and stand in local elections. the new king had to decide whether to follow through on this promise and ease up on the many restrictions women face in their everyday life. women are banned from driving and are often prevented from traveling and going to the doctor's without a male guardian. activists have been sharing vids like this of public violence against women to raise awareness of this issue.
saudi officials have said they don't condone such violence and take these incidents seriously. >> violence is a symptom of the position of women in a society because it reflects how people view the roles of women. this is a tribal society, and it's been kept this way. the philosophy of the government is to keep the control of the man or the power of the father, basically, so violence is used as a disciplinary way or a controlling way. >> narrator: there have recent legal advances in protecting the rights of women, but violence still occurs. in this video, after being whipped in public, the women turn on their attackers.
increasingly, women are fighting back. loujain hathloul is one of saudi arabia's most prominent women activists. she has been campaigning to overturn the ban against women driving. in late 2014, she uploaded a video of herself trying to drive into saudi arabia from the neighboring united arab emirates. >> narrator: moments after this was filmed, loujain was arrested trying to enter saudi arabia. her case was referred to a terrorism court, and she was imprisoned for 73 days without trial before being released.
she's spent months banned from traveling outside saudi arabia. >> i've been threatened since the beginning. my car was broken. i almost got beaten up just because of the campaign. people wrote me letters on facebook and sent me all sorts of weapon pictures, saying that if i continue, i'll be murdered, or my family harmed. >> narrator: loujain's campaign sparked a debate inside saudi arabia. to some women, she became a hero; to the more conservative elements, a hate figure. >> i try to represent their rights. some of them don't believe that it's their own rights. they refuse it, they reject it. but i believe that they are imprisoned in their old ways
and their old mindset, or they just fear freedom. >> narrator:there is a grassroots movement of women's activists who are trying to pressure the regime. yasser's network films one of their meetings. >> narrator:they were discussing king salman's descision to deliver on his predecessor's: women were allowed to take part in upcoming local elections. >> narrator: loujain says she was forced to sign a pledge saying she would no longer publicly campaign when she was released from prison.
but here, she's filming herself registering as a candidate in the elections. >> it's a chance for women to feel the power they can have in making some changes. i know they are minor changes, but it's good to learn about democracy and voting and all this. to be represented next to men equally. to give them that push forward that you actually count. to actually have a chance to act and now do it. >> narrator: as a high-profile activist, entering the election brings added risks for loujain. >> my family supports me. they support the ideas. they support pretty much everything i'm doing. but the jail experience was very harsh on them. i try to respect that, but also i try to respect that fact that
i need and we need action, to keep on acting and acting and push the envelope to actually make some changes. it's scary, i'm not saying it's not scary, but i'm continuing. i'm not stopping, i'm stepping. shaking while stepping, yes, but i'm not giving up. >> narrator: three years after the saudi blogger, raif badawi, was imprisoned for insulting islam, ensaf, his wife, is in strasbourg, france to collect a human rights award from the european parliament on his behalf. but she's had bad news from saudi arabia on raif's case.
>> (translated): raif has been moved to another prison-- a prison for people who have been given a final sentence, and they have to serve out the full sentence in that prison. it was very bad news because i'm very worried about raif's health. >> narrator: she's been told raif has begun a hunger strike. >> (translated): i told the kids that he was moved to a new prison, but i couldn't face telling them about the hunger strike. poor things. my children are tired from all the bad news. they've lost their childhood because of what they've been through. but at least i have the kids. they give me strength to carry on. raif has no one. he has been taken away from his children. the sentence against him is so
they have publicly said that saudi courts are independent and that the constitution protects human rights. but activists are growing increy impatient with the new king. >> (translated): when salman came to the throne, everyone thought he was going to be a force for change. but what have we seen? more executions, more people being locked up for posting things online, and more fear. >> narrator: king salman now faces pressure not just from activists at home, but economic forces that threaten saudi stability. >> narrator: the crash in the price of oil has caused the monarchy to cut subsidies and public spending. >> when the arab spring started, king abdullah spent $133 billion in saudi arabia to buy off dissent, giving free mortgages,
free housing in order to silence the opposition. they don't have that type of money to silence the opposition anymore. >> narrator: on top of the oil crash, saudi arabia has become involved in unprecedented and costly foreign wars in syria and yemen. the international monetary fund has said that at this rate, the saudis will have spent all their financial reserves within five years. >> most of the forecasting of our situation have emphasized that we will go bankrupt in a few years. and this is really serious. faced with the removal of the subsidies, taxation, all those issues would create a stress on people, that they themselves will rise to that challenge and really demand better governance. so if the ruling family does not act in a reasonable way, i don't know what might happen next.
>> saudi arabia is facing some of the biggest challenges it's ever faced. i mean, some of these threats and some of these challenges have been around for some time. what is true today is that they're all coming at once. the oil price is low, youth unemployment, regional instability, you've got a resurgent iran, you've got conflicts in syria, yemen. you could almost argue the possibility of a perfect storm. >> narrator: in january 2016, king salman asserted his authority. >> 47 people in saudi arabia have been executed. >> the biggest mass execution... >> the largest mass execution in three-and-a-half decades. >> narrator: he ordered the execution of 47 men. many were convicted al qaeda terrorists, but among them was the shia cleric sheikh nimr. >> for his role in instigating massive anti-government protests.
>> (translated): on the second of january 2016 at 10:30 am, we heard it on saudi tv. >> saudi arabia executed a prominent shia cleric. >> the charismatic religious leader was known by his followers as a peaceful reformist. >> (translated): we were shocked. the whole saudi community was shocked, even the rest of the world. it's known that the king himself sanctioned this personally. >> saudi arabia's execution of nimr al-nimr has inflamed a centuries-old conflict... >> narrator: the executions caused alarm about the consequences for the region. >> a diplomatic crisis unfolds in the middle east. >> the ripple effect of tensions between iran and saudi arabia. >> the u.s. says it's worried the execution of nimr al-nimr will exacerbate religious tensions. >> iran used their state-run news to condemn nimr's death. >> from a saudi point of view, they saw him as someone who incited violence. >> they are saving the whole world from terrorism.
>> i think it's probably fair to say that sheikh nimr al-nimr was not a terrorist, but he had advocated what the saudis would regard as extreme positions. >> protests are spreading around the globe. >> i think the saudis took the view that they could live with any reaction from iran. >> news of the cleric's death sparked a wave of protests around the region. >> narrator: iran saw it as a provocation and an overtly hostile act towards shia muslims. >> in neighboring bahrain, protests turned violent as police fired tear gas. >> narrator: for saudi dissidents, it was a sign that regime would continue its suppression of opposition. >> the european union warned nimr's death could have dangerous consequences. >> the execution of sheikh nimr, this is going to change things in terms of how people perceive the government and perceive politics. >> saudi officials defended them as an objective and legal way to ensure justice. >> the fact that the state cann, peaceful opposition i think this execution made sheikh nimr al-nimr into an icon, into a
martyr. >> narrator: this new footage smuggled out by the activists' network shows how the sheikh's execution sparked the first major protests in the east of saudi arabia since the arab spring. for the sheikh's son, his father's execution will only incite more opposition to the regime. >> it was a big shock for me. i couldn't believe that the saudi government would do that. even though he knew, and he said that many times. like, i remember one time, he said that, "our blood is a cheap price for our values." >> he basically said that
if they want to kill us, let them kill us. if they want to put us in prison, let them put us in prison. but we won't be silenced. >> by executing my father, they have accelerated the change that would come to this country. >> (protestors shouting) >> narrator: sheikh nimr's nephew, ali, was spared, but he remains on death row. >> (translated): i feel that the sword is against his neck. they say there will be repercussions. they expect that there will be chaos on the streets. so what do you think will happen, god forbid, if they execute him? the situation might become something bigger than just
protests. we do not want that to happen. >> the execution of sheikh nimr is a signal that the saudis were sending not to the shia only, but to all dissidents, secular and islamic. they will not tolerate any dissent because they are viscerally opposed to sharing power. >> narrator: the executions have had an effect on yasser and his fellow activists. after six months, he says that it is too dangerous to keep filming for us. >> (translated): i can't continue. all my friends have been arrested, and if they find my camera, they'll say i'm a terrorist. people aren't happy at all. we now know the true face of the king. >> narrator: as for loujain hathoul, although 21 women were elected in 2015 she says
she was barred from participating in the elections. >> i'm a troublemaker for them. that's why they don't really want me. or actually, i think it's a case of me being a very vocal person about human rights or women rights. >> unfortunately, the religious establishment is not really aligned with any of the economic, social, or best interests of the 30 million people living in saudi arabia. their needs and best interests and voices should be heard, and it will continue to be an issue for the people and for the political system until it's resolved. it's not gonna go away because people are being imprisoned or even executed. >> narrator: last month, saudi security forces returned to shia city of qatif in persuit of a tr suspect armed clashes resumed.
(gunshot) according to residents, two people were killed and 26 injured. (gunshots) despite the risks yasser and the underground network are continuing to try and expose what's going on in saudi arabia. raif badawi has now ended his hunger strike, but he remains in prison, serving his ten-year sentence. >> narrator: ensaf says she hasn't heard from him since the mass execution.
>> (translated): the kids have been asking why we haven't heard anything. i have no answer. i tell them, "i don't know," because i really don't know. of course i hear the news from saudi all the time, but i shut it out so that my head doesn't get mixed up. i convince myself everything else that happens is separate from raif's case.
♪ ♪ come rise up, come give love what you waiting for? ♪ all around, here and now what you waiting for? it's a brand new day. ♪ >> go to pbs.org/frontline for more on saudi arabia's royal family and the challenges they face. >> one of the dilemmas in saudi arabia is you have lots of competing views. >> learn more about the histoy of u.s. ties to the kingdom. read an interview with producer
james jones about the making of this film. then connect to the frontline community on facebook and twitter, visit us on youtube for even more original frontline reporting, then sign up for our newsletter at pbs.org/frontline. >> frontlinis made possible by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. and by the corporation for public broadcasting. major support for frontliis provided by the john d. and catherine t. macarthur foundation, committed to building a more just, verdant and peaceful world. more information is available at macfound.org. additional support is provided by the park foundation, dedicated to heightening public awareness of critical issues. the john and helen glessner family trust, supporting trustworthy journalism that informs and inspires. the ford foundation, working with visionaries on the front lines of social change worldwide, at fordfoundation.org. the wyncote foundation.
and by the frontline journalism fund, with major support from jon and jo ann hagler. captioned by media access group at wgbh access.wgbh.org >> for more on this and other frontline programs, visit our website at pbs.org/frontline. frontline's "saudi arabia uncovered" is available on dvd. to order, visit shoppbs.org or call 1-800-play-pbs. frontline is also available for download on itunes.
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♪ hello and welcome to "kqed newsroom." i'm thuy vu. coming up on our program, we'll talk with author and scholar rez zais lawn before the intersection between religion and politics from president trump's tweets to the travel ban. and a look at the verdict in the cath lynn steinle murder trial that's drawn criticism. plus a comedian takes aim at racial stereotypes starting with the popular series, the simpsons. but first to the state capitol. >> reporter: lawmakers this week held a hearing in sacramento on how sexual harassment allegations are handled and investigates. the hearing came amid new revelations about nbc anchor matt lauer and garrison keilar who were both fired. former national security adviser mi