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Saudi activists fight through their fear

As the population is left simmering after the 'Arab Spring,' those challenging the kingdom wonder whether it will suppress them or let the phenomenon grow.

April 10, 2012|By Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times
  • Mohammad Fahad Al-Qahtani, pictured in his Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, home in 2008, has been challenging a kingdom that demands unquestioned authority.
Mohammad Fahad Al-Qahtani, pictured in his Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, home… (Hassan Ammar, Associated…)

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Mohammad Fahad Al-Qahtani is a busy man with a dangerous passion.

A human rights activist and relentless writer of letters and legal briefs, he challenges a kingdom that demands unquestioned authority. He slips videos onto the Internet and fires off missives to King Abdullah, calling for the freeing of political prisoners and the arrest of the king's half brother and heir apparent.

He smiles at such audaciousness at a time when Saudi authorities are trying to contain calls for change encouraged by Arab rebellions, but turns somber when pondering the consequences. Hours earlier, Al-Qahtani was interrogated by security forces, clicking off his cellphone beforehand and handing his car keys to his lawyer in case he was imprisoned.

When the questioning was over, he drove across a city where religious police ensure that women are hidden by veils and the foreboding monolith of the Interior Ministry rises at the desert's edge.

"They don't like this and they keep coming after us," said Al-Qahtani, with the air of a man accustomed to surveillance. "I'm afraid they'll raid my home. The regime is very nervous. Since the 'Arab Spring,' the population is no longer passive. So what can the ruling family do? Suppress us or let the phenomenon grow?"

Even in a kingdom where police often materialize before a protest placard can be raised or a cry of dissent can be shouted, the uprisings across the region have inspired rumblings of discontent. Minority Shiite Muslims have taken to the streets and thousands of female university students have demonstrated against poor services and discrimination. Disillusioned and angry over lack of opportunities, Saudis have posted gripes in the social media about corruption and civil rights abuses.

Much of the dissatisfaction emanates from a ballooning young population irate because a country with vast oil wealth can't provide livelihoods and affordable apartments. More than 25% of Saudis in their 20s are unemployed. Rising discontent over public corruption and ineptitude prompted the government last year to promise a $130-billion program to build affordable housing, create jobs and fund religious institutions.

"They can't buy their way out anymore and they're not willing to compromise," said Al-Qahtani, an economics professor and president of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Assn. "The problem is an aging leadership and a second generation that's really corrupt. The near future of this country is gloomy."

Saudi Arabia "is redoubling its efforts to punish those who dare to demand democracy and human rights reform," Human Rights Watch charges. The group said in its 2012 World Report that the kingdom has used "unflinching repression," including travel bans, arbitrary arrests and torture, to silence critics.

The Sunni Muslim royal family claims strict security is necessary to counter Al Qaeda and prevent Iran from instigating sectarian trouble. King Abdullah sent Saudi troops into neighboring Bahrain last year to help crush Shiite protests against that country's Sunni monarchy. Riyadh said Shiite-dominated Iran stirred those demonstrations and is plotting to ignite sectarian tensions near Saudi Arabia's eastern oil fields.

The king remains popular even as his attempts at reforms have been limited by a fundamentalist Wahhabi Islam that makes free expression dangerous. One writer may face the death penalty for tweeting an imagined conversation with the prophet Muhammad: "I will not bow to you. I won't kiss your hands."

Gradual steps toward wider freedoms, including the appointment of moderates to some government ministries, have done little to appease civil rights advocates. They predict increased hostility toward reform when the king, who is in his 80s, dies. He is expected to be replaced by his half brother Prince Nayif ibn Abdulaziz, an ally of hard-line clerics and head of the Interior Ministry and its security networks that swiftly suppress protests, arrest accused witches and anyone deviating from the harsh interpretations of the Koran.

Saudi women are increasingly restive; they are not allowed to drive and must have the permission of a male guardian to travel abroad. Loosening the driving ban has gained wider support, including from members of the royal family, but, like many things in the kingdom, it is enforced by religious clerics and police.

"Prison, lashings and Interior Ministry phone threats ... drove the women driving movement underground again," said the Saudiwoman's blog in February. "If you are a Saudi woman reading this, I urge you to join the Right to Dignity initiative."

The post states that women have other options, such as calling the traffic police, if joining the initiative "sounds too intimidating."

Intimidation secures the kingdom's equilibrium. In a recent interview, a newspaper editor complained about the regime's reach and power; the following day his office called to ask that his name not be mentioned for fear of reprisal.

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