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Voice of dissidence in Saudi Arabia has made the Kingdom nervous

By Syed Nazakat in Riyadh 

When he is not teaching or submitting petitions to the Saudi king, Dr Mohammed al-Qahtani, a prominent reform advocate, keeps himself busy with the social crusade. Qahtani, who heads the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, first started a campaign against arbitrary detention and then gave a call for the creation of legal institutions to support transparency. Earlier this year, as autocracies toppled inTunisiaandEgypt, he demanded an elected parliament. His activism and pro-democratic style have earned him a reputation as an outlaw. “What happens here in the next five to ten years will be crucial,” said Qahtani. “I could see a change coming.” 

His wife, Maha al-Qahtani, has taken on a much more controversial issue: the ban on women driving. While most Saudi men are horrified at the thought of women driving to work in the future, Maha, who was partly raised in theUS, has mounted a campaign to defy the ban. Recently she drove through the Saudi capital,Riyadh, only to be stopped by the police and told to go home or face detention. 

In February, 50 relatives of political prisoners who were protesting in front of the interior ministry were evacuated by the police. The kingdom is also using hard measures to curb dissent. Qahtani’s friend and activist Mohammed al-Bjady was arrested on August 6 for disobedience and inciting demonstrations. Qahtani demanded an immediate end to police crackdown on human rights activists and political figures. The voice of dissidence has made the government nervous. 

“We are not against women’s rights,” said General Mansour Sultan al-Turki of the Saudi interior ministry. “But we must not allow any dissident or mass uprising which could wash us away.” He is part of a generation that perceives women driving and their use of cell phones as dangerous—it would enable them to meet and speak to men who are not their relatives. But inRiyadhand other cities women are crazy after iPhones. 

Cell phones, soap operas, the internet and Pizza Huts began to change Saudi society with the dawn of globalisation. During the month of Ramzan, Saudis stay indoors to pray, fast or to catch a nap. But as the sun sets, urban Saudis come out to indulge in shopping and culinary extravaganza. While men sit in their sedans, their burqa-clad wives scout shopping malls.Riyadh’s latest landmark, the 99-floorKingdomTower, one can find women employees alongside men. Glamorous soap operas, which are aired fromBeirut,Cairoand the UAE, are hot favourites in the nation. 

In the streets, there is no sign of a political discourse that can be compared to the ongoing debates in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain,Yemen and Syria. Almost every political discussion seems to end with the same words—peace and stability are divine. King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, 86, custodian of the two holy mosques, is still widely loved and respected. Though he is yet to come to terms with the Egyptian revolution, he promised $3.98 billion to the military council inCairo. For the first time in Saudi history, he sent his soldiers toManamato crush the uprising and became the first Arab head of state to take a firm stand against the Syrian regime’s killing of civilians by recalling his ambassador. “There are only two options forSyria,” King Abdullah said in a recent statement. “Either it chooses wisdom willingly or it drifts into the depths of chaos and loss.” 

With the mass uprising spreading from one Arab country to another, the Saudi government has banned all kinds of rallies and gatherings. For Saudi Arabia the stakes are beyond exaggeration. It is not simply another traditional Arab country coping with change. As the keeper ofMeccaandMedina, it serves as the chief custodian of Islam and the spiritual home of Muslims worldwide. Besides, global economic stability depends a lot on this kingdom which produces 12 per cent of the world’s oil. To prevent any mass unrest, King Abdullah has approved a number of sops like hike in salaries of civil servants, low-interest mortgages, loan waiver and unemployment insurance. Higher education and medical care are already free for Saudi citizens. 

“Forty years ago this country was a total desert. There was nothing here. Today when you go around you will see how much work the kingdom has done for its people,” said Deputy Information Minister Abdulaziz bin Salamah. He believes that unlike the rulers of other Arab countries, the Saudi royal family and officials have not lost touch with common people and that they regularly hold majlis—a social gathering—which anyone is free to attend. It is not unusual to find a poor villager sitting next to the king to discuss his problem. However, prominent Muslim leader Dr Saleh bin Suleiman Al-Wahaibi believes the unrest in the Arab world could influence Saudi Arabia. “Change is natural and it will come to this land, too, though slowly,” he said. “But we don’t want sudden crises and fitna [disorder].” 

Qahtani agrees that his country will be reformed, just like other nations. “We, too, need the right to vote and a parliament,” he said. He points out that in recent years the kingdom has promoted the Majlis Ash-Shura, a consultative assembly. Although the Shura’s members are appointed by the king, he, like some observers, believes that the Shura will eventually share power with the monarchy. “We are raising serious issues and yet we’re still free to meet and discuss,” said Qahtani. “This is a good sign.” 

(15 Oct, 2011, THE WEEK)

 

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