July 17, 2008 No.

Aafaq Editor-in-Chief Omran Salman: Saudi Arabia Has Squandered Opportunity to Renew its Aging Political System

On June 30, 2008, the Saudi English-language daily Arab News published an article titled "Three Years of Reform and Progress" praising the "unprecedented progress in economic, social, educational, health, agricultural and industrial sectors" achieved by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia since the accession of King Abdullah bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz to the throne nearly three years ago. [1]

In contrast with this rosy assessment, Omran Salman, editor-in-chief of the liberal Arab website Aafaq, published an article on July 12, 2008 detailing domestic Saudi developments since King 'Abdullah's accession to the throne and describing the first years of his reign as a period of backsliding on reform.

The following are excerpts:[2]

What Happened to the Hopes for Reform?

"With the approach of the third anniversary of the accession of Saudi monarch King 'Abdullah bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz Aal Saud to the throne in the summer of 2005, it appears that the great hopes for reform in connection with him have dissipated, or are on the way to dissipating. An increasing number of Saudi citizens and intellectuals are disappointed. And the events of the past months and years demonstrate that the anti-reform wing within the Saudi royal family has achieved clear gains.

"Painful blows have been directed at the reformist movement from all sides, through the arrest and imprisonment of its leading personalities, and the constraint and closing of its media and cultural platforms. At the same time, the influence of the Wahhabi establishment and the hardliners has increased, especially the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Suppression of Vice.

"What has happened to bring about this result?"

An Encouraging Beginning, But...

"On August 1, 2005 the death of the previous Saudi monarch, King Fahd bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz, was announced. Under the system of familial succession followed in Saudi Arabia, as in the other Gulf countries, the crown prince, 'Abdullah bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz, was crowned king.

"Until that time, King Abdullah was viewed in many Western and Saudi circles as a reformist, distinguished by open-mindedness and by the encouraging of modernization and development in the Kingdom. [It was thought] that his assuming the leadership of the country would advance the agenda of political reform and minority and women's [issues].

"King 'Abdullah himself sought to reinforce this impression. In 2004, he said to journalists, regarding the controversy over the role of women in the Kingdom, that "the march of reform in Saudi Arabia is continuing, but step by step."[3]

"In 2007 King 'Abdullah said in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that 'the Kingdom will continue its political reforms consistent with the nature of life and the requirements of the times, which require movement, change, and renewal for the better, Allah willing'.[4]

"To give credibility to his reformist orientation, King 'Abdullah began his era by pardoning three of the most prominent proponents of constitutional reform and civil [society] – the academics Dr. Matrouk Faleh and Dr. Abdullah Al-Hamed, and the poet 'Ali Al-Doumaini – after they had served 18 months of sentences originally set at 10 years, for having called for the transformation of Saudi Arabia into a constitutional monarchy and for their initiative in writing a draft Islamic constitution. They were barred from travel after their release.

"Likewise, when King 'Abdullah was crown prince, in June of 2003, he hosted a national conference of a kind unprecedented in the Kingdom, including clergy from among the Shi'a, the Sunnis, and Sufis. Thirty-five clergymen of different Islamic orientations participated. A number of activists from the Shi'ite minority commented that this was the first time they had received official recognition from the Saudi government.

"The Saudi press saw a broader scope for freedom of expression in the era of the new monarch. This was especially pronounced in the Al-Watan and Al-Riyadh newspapers, which witnessed a diversity of views and bold commentary, and included some liberals and feminists."

The Loss of Momentum for Reform

"But there has been no fundamental change on the key issues for reform. Although the National Dialogue, which was initiated by King Abdullah when he was crown prince, has continued through seven rounds and has convened in different regions of the Kingdom, it has been emptied of content. It has accomplished nothing on the ground, and over time has been transformed into meetings for exchanging stories and for issuing recommendations, none of which have been carried out.

"Likewise, the recommendations of the participants in the first session of the Dialogue have not seen the light. At the conclusion of the conference they had called for an increased pace of political reform in the Kingdom, broadened political participation through the election of the Shura Council (Consultative Council) and regional councils, and encouraging the establishment of unions, voluntary organizations and institutions of civil society. And they had called for increased political participation and the just distribution of resources in the country.

"The Saudi leadership has developed no mechanisms to involve the Shi'ite minority or the new classes of liberals and technocrats in decision making…

"Despite the increasing demands on the part of Saudi feminist activists to give women their basic rights, like the right to drive a car, the Saudi leadership has persisted in its rejection [of these demands], arguing that Saudi society is conservative and will not accept the concept of women driving their cars by themselves. Nonetheless, in 1955 this society accepted girls' participation in formal education, thanks to the insistence of the Saudi leadership at that time, and despite society's initial rejection."

The Campaign Against the Reformist Movement

"However, the most marked development, as far as the retreat on reforms is concerned, has been the unprecedented campaign of arrests and harassment of advocates of reform of various orientations, which was undertaken by the Saudi authorities on the direct orders of Interior Minister Prince Nayef. The campaign reached its peak in 2007 and continues until now.

"On Monday, May 19, 2008, Saudi public security forces raided King Saud University in Riyadh, and arrested and imprisoned the well-known reformist Dr. Matrouk Al-Faleh. The authorities gave no explanation and did not announce any specific charges, but it is believed that the arrest resulted from his visit to the lawyer and former academic, 'Abdullah Al-Hamed. Dr. Al-Hamed is one of the leading figures in constitutional reform in Saudi Arabia, and with his brother, Eissa, is being held in the prison in Buraidah.

"On Sunday, May 18, 2008, following his visit to Abdullah Al-Hamed, Al-Falih issued a statement on a number of websites criticizing the Saudi judicial system and the poor conditions in prison.[5]

"In November 2007. Al-Hamed and his brother Eissa were sentenced to several months' imprisonment for having encouraged a group of women to demonstrate at Interior Ministry buildings in Buraidah over the imprisonment of their husbands and brothers without charges. After their appeal was rejected, they themselves entered prison in March, 2008.

"This past May 5, the Saudi public prosecutor charged the prominent liberal activist Ra'if Badawi with 'establishing a website offensive to Islam,' calling on the court to sentence him to five years in prison and to fine him 3,000,000 Saudi riyals (about US$800,000).

"The prosecutor had detained Badawi for one day in May to interrogate him about his website 'Saudi Liberals,' on which he details human rights abuses committed by the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice and criticizes the dominant interpretation of Islam in the Kingdom. He was asked to shut down the website. After being threatened and imprisoned for his online activities, Badawi had to flee Saudi Arabia for an undisclosed location.

"Likewise, Saudi authorities arrested the well-known blogger Fouad Al-Farhan (known as 'the father of the Saudi bloggers') in December of 2007, and held him in prison for four months. He was not charged, but it is thought that his arrest was due to his having shown up the official narrative that tried to pin terrorism charges on some imprisoned reformists.

"In February, 2007, Saudi security forces raided the villa of Saudi lawyer 'Issam Basrawi in Jeddah, arresting him and five of the most prominent advocates for reform. Soon afterward, four others were arrested in Jeddah and Medina. The 10 are lawyers, doctors, and university professors, and one is a former judge.

"Except for Basrawi, who was released for health reasons, the arrested men remain in prison without having been formally charged.

"Saudi security forces arrested reformist activist Muhammad Al-Bajadi on Wednesday, January 9, 2008, in Buraidah, in the north of the Kingdom.

"Others who have not been arrested have been subjected to threats and persecution. 'Abd Al-Karim bin Yousef Al-Khidr, a well-known reformist and professor of comparative jurisprudence in the Faculty of Shari'a at Al-Qassim University, has complained of harassment and threats from the security agencies. In an April 28, 2008 statement, Al-Khidr, who is also the head of the defense team of the imprisoned reformists Abdullah and Eissa Al-Hamed, said that suspicious persons and cars have menaced him and his family in the city of Buraidah, in Al-Qassim province.

"The campaign to silence reformist voices has extended to Saudi writers who have regularly criticized fundamentalism.

"The liberal Saudi writer and academic Muhammad bin 'Ali Al-Mahmoud said on November 4, 2007 that the council of Al-Qassim University had, under pressure from extremists, issued a decision removing him from teaching in the Arabic language department, and transferring him to administrative work, 'fearing for the beliefs of the students, from what they regard as the deviant and idiosyncratic ideas in his lectures to which he exposes them'."[6]

Increased Influence of the Wahhabi Establishment

"In tandem with the security campaign against reformists, the influence of the Wahhabi establishment – and of its instrument for the domination of Saudi society, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice – have increased.[7]

"It is believed that the support the Commission receives from the hard-line wing of the Saudi royal family has protected it from many pressures, including calls by many Saudi intellectuals and writers for its abolition or the regulation of its activities.

"In his speech at the conclusion of the first 'Awareness Conference,' held under the slogan 'The Best Nation'[8] and organized by the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, the Emir of Riyadh, Prince Salman bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz, said that the Saudi government had given the Commission the authority and capacity to apply force to change evil behavior, and that [the commandment of] promoting virtue and preventing vice 'is almost one of the pillars of Islam.'[9]

"Likewise, Saudi Minister of the Interior Prince Nayef bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz defended the Commission against the calls for its abolition, saying, 'the [commandment of the] promoting virtue and preventing vice is a pillar of Islam.' He added, in comments after a meeting with the Shura Council on July 1, 2007, 'if we are Muslims we must know this, and if not, this is not a homeland for non-Muslims.'[10]

"And in an open meeting in the Islamic University in Madina, the president of the Saudi Shura Council, Dr. Salih bin Humaid, defended the hard-line clergy, saying, 'There are some who intend to be cautious so as to avert deleterious consequences, and others want to make things easy for the people, and both seek exoneration from guilt.' And he denied that there is something called 'tolerant Islam,' insisting that 'Islam is Islam.'[11]

"Instead of loosening the the Wahhabi establishment's grip on society, it appears that the hard-line wing has decided to bestow new roles on its struggle against change, reform and modernization.

"This June, a conference of different Islamic sects was convened in Mecca, with a large number of Sunni and Shi'ite clergy in attendance, at the invitation of the Saudi monarch King Abdullah, who [himself] opened the inaugural session. A few days before the conference was to open, on June 5, 22 high-ranking members of the Wahhabi establishment, headed by two the most prominent sheikhs, Abdullah bin 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Jebreen and 'Abd Al-Rahman bin Nasir Al-Barrak, issued a sharply worded statement declaring that the Shi'a are infidels and warning the Sunni world against rapprochement with the Shi'a. It was clearly the objective of the declaration to disrupt the conference and cause its failure.[12]

"Likewise, the same group has regularly issued statements declaring other Islamic sects and [followers of] other religions to be infidels, in addition to inciting fighting in Iraq and supporting hard-line Islamic movements like Hamas.

"And this year, the Wahhabi establishment inaugurated a vicious campaign against liberal Saudi writers and intellectuals. The most serious attack was the issuing of a fatwa by prominent Wahhabi cleric 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Barrak against two Saudi liberal journalists from the Al-Riyadh daily newspaper, Yousef Aba Al-Khail and 'Abdullah bin Bjad Al-Otaibi – declaring them apostates and calling for their killing over articles they had published in the paper.[13]

"Likewise, a member of the Superior Commission of 'Ulama' and member of the Saudi Standing Committee for Scientific Research and the Issuing of Fatwas, Sheikh Salih bin Fawzan Al-Fawzan, launched a strong attack on liberals, stripping them of their [tie] to Islam and expressing his view that 'anyone who claims that he is a liberal Muslim is in a state of contradiction, and must repent to God to be a Muslim in fact.'[14]

"Harsh criticism directed by some hard-liners in the Wahhabi establishment against the Riyadh International Book Fair (March 4, 2008) led to the Saudi authorities' confiscation of a large number of Saudi and other Arab books and novels, on the charge that they were propagating '...Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Sufism, Ismailism, occult doctrines, Shi'ism, Ibadism, and the Druze religion.'[15]

"And the matter did not end here. The Wahhabi establishment has extended its surveillance and its authority to business establishments that employ women, and to attacking universities and educational institutions on the charge of 'mixing' [of the sexes].

"A study conducted by IPSOS, an organization that measures public opinion, on behalf of the Sayyida Khadeejah bint Khuwailed Center (part of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry) found that 58% of business establishments complained of opposition by local bodies, and first and foremost by the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, to the employment of women in the private sector, causing some of these firms to hesitate before employing more women.

"The executive director of the Khadeejah bint Kuwailed Center, Ms. Basma Umair, said that 'these companies complained in particular of the frequency with which members of the Commission visit their company, intimidating the female employees, and making them feel professional insecurity and instability.'[16]

"On Thursday, June 12, 2008 a group of hard-line clergy in Saudi Arabia led by the hard-line cleric 'Abd 'Al-Rahman Al-Barrak launched an attack on the King Saud bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz University for the Health Sciences for allowing a 'mixed' reception of male and female graduates, and criticized Effat College, a girls' school, for organizing a female basketball tournament. The statement by the group of clergy, published on the 'Shabakat Nour Al-Islam' website ( said, 'We condemn this activity and call upon those who perpetrated it to repent ... and not to repeat something like this.' And the signatories to the letter demanded that the 'authorities punish those who want to drag this Nation into the infernal depths of Westernization.'"

The Truth about King Abdullah's Reform Project

"Many observers inside and outside Saudi Arabia are asking themselves why the Saudi monarch has been unable to advance the process of reform, open up the political system to Saudi citizens, and put an end to the shameful practices of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice."

First Hypothesis: The Saudi King Was Never a Reformer

"One of the hypotheses is that, from the beginning, the Saudi monarch did not in fact have a reformist project – or, that the reform he was talking about was different from what Saudi reformists were calling for. While the reformists were calling for political reforms on the model of democratic countries, with free elections, an elected parliament, an independent judiciary, the rule of law, and the separation of powers – [though] with the preservation of the distinctive features of Saudi identity and its particularity – King Abdullah, for his part, understood reform as the development of some of the administrative and political agencies in a way that would not anger people of influence in the royal family and the Wahhabi establishment.

"The Saudi researcher Fouad Ibrahim says that 'the gamble on the hypothetical reformist role of King Abdullah was proven wrong when he passed in silence over the arbitrary arrests of leaders of the reformist tendency in 2004. And, as for the formal reformist measures that he announced later, they should be classified in the context of sugar-coating Saudi Arabia's image abroad.'

"And he adds, 'The word "reform" has been replaced with "development," in order to give this stage the appearance of a nationalist reformist message, and King Abdullah decided to give free rein to the desires of the Sudairi branch of the royal family in restricting reformist activity.'[17]

"This assessment is shared by Saudi activist Madawi Al-Rasheed, who wrote: 'In the summer of 2005, many political activists inside the country rejoiced, because they found in the King the beginning of a new stage that might be crucial in the transformation of Saudi Arabia into a constitutional monarchy with an elected national assembly, independent civil society organizations, and an independent judiciary. All of these are demands that crystallized during the preceding period, but were met with silence, at times, and with arbitrary arrest and imprisonment at other times. But the brief stage in the rule of King Abdullah proved clearly and unambiguously that the desired change is improbable, and that what is called the "fourth Saudi state" has not yet been born, and will not be born in the near future.'"[18]

Second Hypothesis: Hardliner Obstructionism

"The second hypothesis is that King Abdullah did indeed want to carry out reforms, but that the powerful opposition of his opponents inside the royal family frustrated his project and forced him to retreat and reconsider, fearing the disintegration of his regime.

"Proponents of this view point to the opposition in the Sudairi branch of the royal family, who are widely believed to control most centers of political and security decision making in the Kingdom, by virtue of their penetration into all organs of the state. And they have hastened to obstruct any true movement toward change.

"The Sudairi branch of the family consists of six brothers: Prince Sultan (Crown Prince and Minister of Defense), Prince Nayef (Minister of the Interior, and the strong man in most government agencies), Prince Salman (Emir of the Riyadh region, close to the clerics, and with broad influence in the public and private media agencies), Prince Ahmad (Deputy Minister of the Interior), Prince Abdul Rahman (Deputy Minister of Defense), and Prince Turki (former Minister of Defense, before he moved to Egypt).

"This branch gave early signals of its position on reform. The current crown prince, Prince Sultan, was quoted as saying that the members of the Shura Council should not be elected by the citizens, but should be appointed; election would mean that the Council would come under popular control, which would mean that the people might elect illiterates; for this reason, it is preferable that we appoint the members of the Council. This is the same point of view held by Minister of the Interior Prince Nayef, who also stated publicly that the Saud family does not accept the word 'reform,' because it would mean acknowledging that there have been errors in the manner of government. As long as the government in the Kingdom is based on the Islamic shari'a, it is not permissible to say that there are errors in government. And, for that reason, it is not permissible to use the word 'reform,' but 'evolution' or 'development' instead."[19]

Third Hypothesis: Regional Factors

"In addition to the two hypotheses mentioned, there are also pressing regional factors that have aroused fears in the Saudi royal family, and made it more sensitive when it comes to demands for change and reform.

"The overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003 and the rise of the Shi'a to power in Iraq have placed Saudi Arabia openly face to face with Iran. And Saudi bitterness has increased with the defeat of its allies in Lebanon at the hands of Hizbullah and its supporters, and the emergence of Shi'ite enclaves in a number of Sunni Arab countries, especially near its own borders, like the Houthi rebellion in Yemen.

"The security, political and economic measures adopted by the United States after the attacks of September 11, 2001 have weakened Saudi Arabia's ability to rally the Sunni world (as it did during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan) and to use its influence with Islamist groups to counter the Iranian tide.

"The new political reality in the area has contributed to a rise in the shares of the hardliners in the Saudi royal family and the dominance of their thinking at the expense of the moderates – among them the Saudi monarch and the princes in his entourage, including Prince Muqrin bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz (head of Saudi intelligence), Prince Mish'al bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz (head of the Allegiance Committee), Prince Badr bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz (Vice President of the National Guard), and Prince Bandar bin Sultan (head of the National Security Council), in addition to the son of the King, Prince Mit'ab (Minister of Municipal and Rural Affairs)."


"Regardless of the reasons that led to the foundering of the Saudi monarch's reform project, and whether the cause was internal or external, the result is that Saudi Arabia has lost another opportunity to renew its aging political system, and to open it up to its youthful people.

"Because it is not possible to achieve reform without reformists – and most certainly not when they are in prisons and forbidden to move and travel – the domestic policy of Saudi Arabia has turned into attempts to remain [in place] in the midst of a changing environment and events that have roiled the Middle East over the past three years."


[1] Arab News (Saudi Arabia), June 30, 2008,§ion=0&article=111372&d=30&m=6&y=2008

[2], July 12, 2008. Unless otherwise noted, the following endnotes are those of the author.

[3] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), January 22, 2004.

[4] Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (Germany), November 8, 2007.

[5] See, May 18, 2008, "Saudi Arabia: Al-Hamed and his Brother Begin Hunger Strike in Protest Against Poor Prison Conditions," See also in, June 16, 2008, "Freedom for Dr. Matrouk Al-Faleh and his Associates in Saudi Prisons,"

[6], "The Writer Mahmoud Confirms his Removal from Teaching 'to Protect the Students'," November 4, 2007.

[7] The Wahhabi movement (also referred to as salafist or unitarian) has played a crucial role in the religious legitimation of the rule of the family of the "Aal Saud" since the foundation of the first Saudi state, 1747-1818, and in the second Saudi state, 1843-1891, and in the third Saudi state, from 1902 until the present. The alliance that the founder of the Wahhabi movement, Muhammad bin Abd Al-Wahhab, established with the founder of the first Saudi state, the Emir Muhammad bin Saud, has remained firm throughout the years by virtue of the exact distribution of powers and authority between the two sides: Sheikh Abd Al-Wahhab gave his oath of allegiance to the Emir Muhammad and promised to obey him, and the Emir Muhammad gave his oath to spread the Wahhabi doctrine if he came to power.

[8] This slogan is a reference to Koran 3:110, "You are the best nation brought forth for mankind, promoting virtue and preventing vice…" (note by MEMRI)

[9] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), November 26, 2007

[10] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), July 2, 2007

[11], March 13, 2008, "President of the Saudi Shura Council Defends the Clergy and Denies the Existence of 'Tolerant Islam,'"


[13], March 15, 2008, "Saudi Cleric Excommunicates Two Journalists with Saudi Newspaper Riyadh, Calls for their Killing,"

[14] See Sheikh Fawzan Al-Fawzan's official website,

[15], March 3, 2008: "Fundamentalist Sheikh Nasir Al-Umar: The Book Fair is Spreading Shi'ism, Sufism, Judaism, Christianity, and Buddhism," The fundamentalist cleric Nasir Al-Umar published an article on a website accusing those responsible for the exhibition of the "spreading" of Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Sufism, Ismailism, occult doctrines, Shi'ism, Ibadism, and the Druze religion, and demanding that they be prosecuted on the charge of spreading infidelity and atheism. In the wake of his article, five senior members of the Wahhabi establishment issued a fatwa declaring a boycott of a number of the publishing houses that participated in the Riyadh International Book Fair, on the grounds that they sold books by Arab thinkers and poets like Nasr Hamid Abu Zeid, Adonis, Nizar Qabbani, and others. The five contended in the fatwa that they published on the website "Shabakat Nour Al-Islam" ( that these books "are more dangerous to the people than lethal poison, and that they are forbidden more strongly than drug smuggling, because those [drugs] corrupt the body, while these [books] corrupt religion."

[16] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), January 17, 2008.

[17] Interview with Saudi researcher Fouad Ibrahim,, February 22, 2007.

[18] Essay by the Saudi activist Madawi Al-Rasheed in Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), July 2, 2007.

[19] Interview with Saudi researcher Mai Yamani in Al-Mushahid Al-Siyasi (London), December 18, 2005.