DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- With global attention focused on upheaval elsewhere in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia quietly intensified its clampdown on dissent in 2013, silencing democracy advocates and human rights defenders with arrests, trials and intimidation in what reformists say was one of the darkest years ever for their efforts in the powerful U.S.-allied Gulf state.
The clampdown reflects the highly delicate times that the world's top oil producer is passing through.
The monarchy is trying to modernize the country's economy to reduce its reliance on oil revenues and create a more diverse private sector to provide jobs for a grumbling population. To manage the shifts, activists say it has manipulated the divisions in Saudi society, playing on tribal sentiments and shifting between Saudis who seek a more liberal lifestyle and the ultraconservative Wahhabi clerics who traditionally give the royal family legitimacy.
As it navigates those currents, the monarchy is blunting calls for political reform, fearing an Arab Spring-style upheaval that would rattle the ruling family's grip on power.
This year, at least nine prominent reformers were given lengthy jail sentences for offenses including "breaking allegiance with the king." A leading rights lawyer was forced to flee the kingdom for fear of arrest. One of the kingdom's most prominent rights organizations -- the Saudi Association for Civil and Political Rights, known in Arabic by its acronym HASEM -- was shut down. A tough anti-terror law was approved by the government, defining acts as vague as "defaming the state's reputation" as terrorism.
More than 200 protesters, including women and children, were detained in Buraydah, north of the capital Riyadh, for demanding the release of imprisoned relatives. A Saudi man was sentenced this week to 30 years in prison for his role in leading protests by the country's Shiite minority, who complain of discrimination. At least five women were detained for several hours for flouting a driving ban, and a Saudi male writer supportive of their push was detained for almost two weeks.
Abdulaziz Alhussan, the rights lawyer who fled to the United States, warned that if the monarchy doesn't address calls for change, the demands could escalate and destabilize the country.
"If we wait another seven to 10 years, we will be in a more dangerous situation than Egypt and Syria," he told The Associated Press. "What we need to do is fix it before it's too late."
He said that while 2013 was bad for activists -- "one of the worst years we are facing in Saudi Arabia" -- it was ultimately "much worse for the government" because Saudis are more informed and aware of the needs for better governance.
"The government has no option but to reconcile with its own people," he said. "They do not want to overthrow the royal family. They are saying we need reform where human rights are respected and where there is accountability and transparency within government."
Saudi Arabia is one of the world's last absolute monarchies. All decisions are centered in the hands of 89-year-old King Abdullah, who has the sole power to ratify new laws. There is no parliament. There is little written law, and judges -- implementing the country's strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam -- have broad leeway to impose verdicts and sentences. A Specialized Criminal Court created in 2008 for terrorism cases has tried reformers and activists. Offences such as "disobeying the ruler" can result in years in prison.
More than a half dozen Saudi rights activists interviewed by the AP say they seek a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament and want accountability in government, particularly to know how the vast oil revenues are spent.
When Saudis do speak out, they say their phone calls and emails are monitored and that they are tailed by security officers. The kingdom has aggressively monitored social media websites like Facebook and Twitter, where jokes about the aging monarchy are rife and anger over corruption, poverty and unemployment is palpable.