Activists are increasingly speaking out on topics of reform and rights in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, each with their own interpretation of the necessary course. On December 5, 2012 crowds came out to welcome the Salafi Sheikh Sulaiman bin Nasser al-Alwan following his release after nine years of imprisonment. Al-Alwan gathered fame among Salafis at home and abroad for his independence from the official Saudi religious line in combination with his religious credentials, despite being unknown outside the kingdom prior to making headlines with his arrest and reportedly harsh treatment by the Saudi authorities. Similarly, there have been other rumblings of change in Saudi society. Most prominently, a group of rights activists and reformists have been brought to trial in the past year—including two of the eleven co-founders the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, Abdullah al-Hamed and Mohammed al-Qahtani. They are accused of obstructing economic development, threatening stability, disobeying the king, flouting the Council of Senior Ulema, and defaming the Saudi judiciary. For their part, the defendants have upheld their nonviolent activism and their demands for political reform and a constitutional monarchy, but their trial has resulted in a number of confrontations. 

In response to one judge’s question to al-Hamed during the November 11, 2012 session in Riyadh about his opinion of the king’s title of wali amr, the defendant responded that “the people are our wali amr.” His wording was a play on “The king is our wali amr,” a slogan referring to the Saudi interpretation of the verse “O believers, obey God, and obey the Messenger and those in authority [wali al-amr] among you” (Quran 4:59, Arberry) as conveying divine disapproval of political dissent. This was considered a challenge to Saudi Arabia’s monarchial paradigm and the strict security measures which have historically characterized the Kingdom. 

The alliance between the Al Saud in the political establishment and the Al Asheikh (the descendants of Muhammed Abdel Wahhab) in the religious one dates back over a century, and has synthesized a system intent on control of citizens’ behavior—one considered inviolable and not to be questioned on the popular scale. However, this system no longer appears to be sustainable. A sizeable number of Saudi intellectuals, rights activists, and preachers have become convinced that there are other doctrinal and jurisprudential options contrary to the regime’s claims to sacrosanctity. Since 2004, the rumblings of popular dissent have grown louder: calls for a redefined social contract between the ruling family and the people are becoming increasingly more common. Reforms that would replace the absolute monarchy with a constitutional one—one that embraces participation, justice, and freedom. Saudis at social gatherings and in social networks alike have long shared jokes mocking a top figure in the ruling family, Mashal bin Abdul-Aziz Al-Saudi, referred to as “the prince of shabouk,” (roughly, barbed wire) who is notorious for seizing others’ land and surrounding it with wire. And the royals are not the only target; Abdul-Aziz Qasem, a journalist for the newspaper Al-Watan became the target of popular mockery when he described the Dhahaban political prison as a “five-star hotel” in a November 5, 2012 following his visit to the site—one carefully staged by the security agencies. With further analysis, it becomes clear that the situation in Saudi Arabia did not emerge from a vacuum, but is rather the end result of decades of political, doctrinal, and social repression.

The government has long attempted to curb popular-level religiosity and Islamist influence within the country’s public institutions (particularly in the media and education) while simultaneously distracting society with domestic and foreign issues. Saudi decision-makers were successful during the 1980s in mesmerizing the public with the communist threat in Afghanistan and the Shia threat in Iran, and preoccupying the remaining intellectuals and with fighting the “Western menace.” The Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi activists, meanwhile, focused their energies on backing the jihad in Afghanistan. It was during this time of turmoil that the $86 billion al-Yamamah arms-trade scandal occurred: a series of arms deals between British companies in exchange for Saudi oil. Other royals, meanwhile, reaped huge profits from real estate deals by selling land they obtained for free through what are known as “royal grants” set aside for princes. Saudi princes still own huge swathes of land while over 60% of the Saudi population combined (19.4 million as of 2011) lives in rental units, unable to afford or find suitable housing in a country of over 2 million square kilometers.

International pressure has helped bring the issue of reform in Saudi Arabia to the fore, while also mobilizing public opinion against corruption and the misuse of public funds—particularly in arms deals. Citizens at private social gatherings have begun to question the need for foreign troops; where is the Saudi army after the state has spent billions of dollars on weapons and training? 

Two approaches to political reform have been prominent in the face of royal initiatives tackling issues that rights activists see as tangential. The rights activists represent the first approach: that of nonviolent activism aimed at reformulating the government from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy, with all that implies—a popularly agreed-upon constitution, an elected parliament, and checks on corruption and graft. Allied with this camp in this regard is the Umma Islamic Party, which calls for an elected head of government and the transfer of power. Umma’s founders were arrested days after announcing the establishment of their party in March 2011.

The second approach is that taken by the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia, which argues that reform is impossible as long as the Saud family is in power, and that the monarchy must be completely uprooted and replaced by a popularly elected government. This movement is led by the exiled Saad al-Faqih, who firmly believes that the ruling family is unfit and incapable of governing. Those calling for more radical change claim that a psychological analysis of the Saud family’s history shows that they believe themselves to have exclusive right over the country’s power and wealth—relinquishing only what they will by choice, not the people’s right. The princes who press for reforms are doing so only to achieve financial and political balance within the family, but themselves remain beholden to a culture of inherited right. This was perhaps best exemplified by Talal bin Abdul-Aziz when he compared the kingdom to a company, and the sons and grandsons of the founder to board members in his 2009 interview with Al-Arabiyya.

While the political reform activists want is based on the principles of justice and popular rule, achieving this reform would strip the royal family of most of their financial privileges and socio-political influence. No king would dare to push through such reforms—even assuming he were convinced of its justice. Doing so would provoke a crisis right at the heart of the royal family. 

Ibrahim Hatlani is a Jeddah-based Saudi writer and researcher.