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National Agenda : Saudi Arabia's Exiles Challenge a Closed Society : The dissidents want the kingdom to be more democratic and more Islamic.


LONDON — The latest and perhaps most dangerous challenge to the House of Saud is a portable telephone that Mohammed al Massari carries in his pocket around the fashionable hotel lobbies, restaurants and offices of London.

It rings every 10 minutes or so, and it's always a caller from somewhere in Saudi Arabia--dialing through a New York exchange so the call can't be traced--with tidbits of damaging gossip about the royal family, a report on the arrest of an opponent of the Saudi regime or simply a word of encouragement. "Thank you for what you're doing," said one caller from Riyadh on a recent afternoon. "We all support you."

Al Massari works for the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights, whose office in London is a virtual guerrilla warfare center, a network of computers, files and fax machines that transmit reams of sedition into the remote desert kingdom, one of the most closed societies on Earth.

The London operatives say 300 faxes a month go to Saudi government offices (the military was recently ordered to keep fax machines turned off unless a specific document was expected), and 300 more go to various merchants, intellectuals, businessmen and clerics who in turn copy them and re-fax them, in numbers totaling more than 100,000, throughout the kingdom; the committee claims, with great delight, to have recently acquired the number to the fax machine in the bedroom of Saudi Defense Minister Prince Sultan ibn Abdulaziz, brother of King Fahd.

In recent weeks, Prince Sultan might have awakened to find these bits of propaganda at his bedside: that Saudi Arabia was secretly supplying the southern Yemenis with tanks and other military assistance in neighboring Yemen's civil war; that the number of pilgrims who died in an accident during the recent hajj pilgrimage was 10 times more than the government reported, or more than 2,200; that King Fahd and his brothers had in April received salary payments of 100 million Saudi riyals, about $27 million.

To the worry of both the Saudi monarchy and many Western governments, this particular opposition organization is an Islamic group bent on making the rigorously Islamic nation even more fundamentalist. Yet its calls for democratization and an end to corruption have attracted the interest of Saudi liberals pushing for greater freedom and public participation in government.

Nor are the committee's activities the only sign that not all is well in the kingdom, one of America's most important allies in the Arab world and its major partner in staging Operation Desert Storm, the 1991 war that drove Iraqi troops out of Kuwait.

In recent weeks, two Saudi diplomats have gone into hiding in the United States, one from the Saudi consulate in Houston, the other posted to the Saudi mission at the United Nations in New York. Both are seeking political asylum and claiming harassment by the Saudi government.

"I join my voice to the increasing number of moderate academics from our great nation who are no longer able to tolerate the breaches of basic human rights, including the right to freedom of expression and political association, by the present regime in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia," said Ahmed al Zahrany, second secretary at the consulate in Houston, in an announcement in late June.

Mohammed al Khilewi, the U.N. envoy, in a letter to Saudi Arabia's senior cleric, Sheik Abdulaziz ibn Baz, began his announcement of opposition with a quotation from a Koranic verse that has been frequently circulated in underground cassette tapes in Saudi Arabia, to the fury of the royal regime: "Kings, when they enter a country, despoil it, and make the noblest of its people its meanest; thus do they behave."

Khilewi said that within hours of sending the letter he received a phone call from the Saudi ambassador in Washington, Prince Bandar ibn Sultan, offering to send his private jet to take him to Washington, where they would discuss the issue in a private suite at the Watergate Hotel.

"Based upon my experience, I understood this to be an attempt to kidnap me and return me to Saudi Arabia for the treatment accorded to vocal opponents of the regime," Khilewi said in a statement to the press after he went into hiding.

Opposition to the House of Saud has simmered off and on for years, especially in the hot desert north of Riyadh where Saudi Arabia's most radical clerics hold sway. But in the years since the end of the Persian Gulf War, opposition to the regime has reached unprecedented levels, mostly invisible because so few Western observers are granted visas to visit the kingdom, a number of Saudi analysts say.

"I think the U.S. government is mistaken to underestimate the degree of support for the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights and the extent of opposition in Saudi Arabia. There has been a sea change just in the past year," said Aziz abu Hamad, a Saudi who studies human rights issues in the kingdom for Human Rights Watch, a U.S.-based organization.

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