Saudi authorities have banned hundreds of books, including works by renowned Palestinian poet Mahmud Darwish, as part of a crackdown on publications deemed threatening to the conservative kingdom.
Saudi Arabia clamped down on dissent following the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, from which it has been largely spared, and has adopted an increasingly confrontational stance towards the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups it has long viewed as a threat to its security.
The local Okaz daily reported Sunday that organisers at the Riyadh International Book Fair had confiscated “more than 10,000 copies of 420 books” during the exhibition.
Local news website Sabq.org reported that members of the kingdom’s notorious religious police had protested at “blasphemous passages” in works by the late Darwish, widely considered one of the greatest Arab poets, pressing organisers to withdraw all his books from the fair, which ended Friday.
The religious police frequently intervene to enforce the kingdom’s strict conservative values, but the move to ban so many works was seen as unprecedented.
Similar action was taken against works by Iraq’s most famous modern poet, Badr Shaker al-Sayyab, and another Iraqi poet, Abdul Wahab al-Bayati, as well as those by Palestinian poet Muin Bseiso.
The fair’s organising committee also banned a book entitled “When will the Saudi Woman Drive a Car?” by Abdullah al-Alami, the Saudi Gazette daily reported.
Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women, forced to cover in public from head to toe, are not allowed to drive.
Other banned books include “The History of Hijab” and “Feminism in Islam.”
Activist Aziza Yousef said the crackdown had offered “free advertising to those whose books were banned” as many “rushed to download these works from the Internet.”
Organisers also banned all books by Azmi Bishara, a former Arab Israeli MP who left the Jewish state in 2007 and is now close to authorities in Qatar, where he is based, Sabq.org reported.
The ban comes amid escalating tensions between Qatar and three other Gulf Arab monarchies — Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain — who pulled their envoys from Doha earlier this month, accusing it of interfering in their internal affairs.
– Concern over Islamists –
The decision to withdraw the ambassadors was seen as driven largely by Saudi animosity towards the Muslim Brotherhood of deposed Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi and its regional affiliates, which are widely believed to receive support from Qatar.
“Revolution”, a book by Wael Ghonim, a secular Egyptian and former Google executive who became an icon of the country’s 2011 uprising that toppled Saudi ally Hosni Mubarak, was also banned from the Riyadh fair, according to Sabq.
Organisers of the book fair, which began March 4, had announced ahead of the event that any book deemed “against Islam” or “undermining security” in the kingdom would be confiscated.
A few days after the fair opened, Saudi authorities closed the stall of the Arab Network for Research and Publishing headed by Islamist publisher Nawaf al-Qudaimi and confiscated all his publications, citing threats to the kingdom’s security.
The crackdown comes after the interior ministry published a list of “terror” groups earlier this month in a move which analysts have warned could further curb civil liberties in the absolute monarchy.
On the list is the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Nusra Front, which is Al-Qaeda’s official Syrian affiliate, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, another jihadist group fighting in Syria and Iraq.
Saudi is a key backer of the rebels fighting to unseat Syrian President Bashar al-Assad but is concerned about possible blowback from jihadists, following a wave of domestic unrest from 2003-2006.