Saudi Dissenters Go Public
Hiro, Dilip, The Nation
In a burst of faxes to local and international media, the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights in Saudi Arabia announced its emergence in early May. The C.D.L.R. said it would strive to "eliminate injustice, support the oppressed and defend legitimate rights" of citizens, "irrespective of confessional identity, race or sex," and called on Saudis to report injustices to the committee. The government's immediate suppression of the group signaled the crossing of an important threshold in the kingdom's history. Although Saudi Arabia's first open human rights movement was quickly quashed, it is impossible to liquidate the sizable educated middle class, which is eager to participate in running the oil-rich country through a popularly elected parliament. Nor can an expanding body of youngish clerics, or ulema, who are increasingly critical of the Saudi ruling family's glaring deviations from Islamic precepts and practices, be controlled for long. Both segments of the opposition to the autocratic monarchy are beginning to air their criticisms at a time when citizens on fixed wages have seen their living standards eroded by high inflation caused by a decade of budget deficits and financial mismanagement under the rule of King Fahd ibn Abdul Aziz, including the squandering of $180 billion of foreign reserves.
On the one hand, at 8.4 million barrels per day, the oil output of a country with barely 15.4 million people is running at a near-record level. On the other hand, there is rising unemployment among Saudi nationals and a breakdown of the welfare state built barely a decade and a half ago. Classrooms are overcrowded, hospital beds are in short supply, the flow of water to homes and offices is intermittent and interest-free loans for the purchase of new houses are a thing of the past. The punishment for opposing the regime continues to range from loss of livelihood to imprisonment without trial, flogging, burial up to the neck in hot sand and even "disappearance." In the late 1980s, according to Amnesty international, there were 700 political prisoners in Saudi jails. The launching of the C.D,L.R. challenges the longstanding U.S. policy of underwriting the Saudi monarchy, a practice first adopted by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 and reinforced by George Bush during the 1991 Gulf War [see Judith Caesar, "Rumblings Under the Throne" December 17, 1990].
The timing of the committee's rounding on May 3 was prompted in part by the multiparty elections in neighboring Yemen, based on universal suffrage, held on April 27. "In Yemen they have a fully elected Parliament now;' Professor Muhammad al Masari, the spokesman for the C.D.L.R., said in a BBC World Service interview before his arrest on May 15. "Saudi society is more educated and middle class than Yemeni"
The C.D.L.R's program of human rights and political reform found favor with both liberal nationalists and conservative fundamentalists. The liberals welcomed the committee's demand for votes for women as well as men. And among those who publicly supported suffrage was a group of clerics from Qassim, a city that is becoming a center of Islamist opposition to the royal family.
The prospect of the C.D.L.R. acting as a bridge between liberal nationalists and conservative fundamentalists drove the Saudi authorities to crush it swiftly and decisively. They deprived its six founders--three university teachers, two lawyers and a civil servant--of their livelihood through dismissals and withdrawals of licenses, and they arrested al Masari. A physics professor, he is fluent in English, a useful asset in attracting international media attention. He acted as the interpreter for his father, C.D.L.R. chairman Sheik Abdullah al Masari, a retired Islamic judge and a practicing lawyer, during the latter's three-hour meeting with two senior U.S. diplomats in Riyadh on May 13.
Sheik al Masari was one of two C.D.L.R. founders who, along with 105 other eminent Islamic scholars, judges and academics, signed a forty-five-page "advisory memorandum" that was submitted to King Fahd last August. …