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Saudi activists – who are they and what do they want?

Saudi Arabia

Waleed Abu al-Khair, a lawyer whose crime is to defend constitutional reformists and blogger Raif Badawi. © Dinendra Haria/PA Images

Fearing a domino effect from the Arab uprisings in 2011, the Saudi regime adopted multiple strategies to stifle dissent in the kingdom.

First it started using oil wealth to distribute millions of dollars in benefits, job opportunities and other welfare services. Then followed repression, leading to hundreds of peaceful activists for change being rounded up and put in prison. Some were flogged, others executed; many still face the death penalty.

By 2014 new anti-terrorism laws and royal decrees had criminalized practically all forms of dissent, including demonstrations, civil disobedience, criticizing the king or communicating with foreign media without government authorization.

Yet these measures have failed to mute a wide range of activists.

Under stifling conditions, activism has moved to the virtual world, taking advantage of the tremendous proliferation of social media in the kingdom.

While some of the activists have an overtly political agenda to transform the kingdom into a constitutional monarchy, or to overthrow the regime altogether, others have modest aspirations revolving around demands to improve living conditions under the present regime.

Filling prisons

Constitutional reformers are dissidents who are calling for an alternative political system with an elected government, in which citizens are fully represented in a parliament. They want a truly independent civil society to defend human, political and civil rights.

'Without a new culture of peaceful activism, people will move underground and erupt like a volcano'

This is a bold move in a country that does not allow any civil-society associations to exist without the permission or patronage of important princes.

Since 2009, the constitutional reformers have included Islamists and non-Islamists, coming together to call for political change. Many are lawyers, academics, professionals.

While continuing to pledge allegiance to the king, they wrote several petitions and collected signatures in support of their demands. But the regime considered these revolutionary. It insisted that the Qur’an is the constitution and a human-made one is against Islamic tradition as interpreted by the Wahhabi clerical establishment.

Swiftly the regime clamped down on the advocates of constitutional monarchy. In 2013 several well-known activists were sentenced to 10-15 years in prison in addition to bans on travel after their release.

The main figures targeted included judge Sulaiman al-Rushoudi, and the professors Abdullah al-Hamid and Muhammad al-Qahtani.

Abdullah al-Hamid challenged the government when he warned: ‘Without a new culture of peaceful activism, people will move underground and erupt like a volcano.’ His statement was seen as a call for demonstrations. The regime quickly imprisoned even the lawyers defending constitutional reformists, including Waleed Abu al-Khair and Fawzan al-Harbi.

Young activists who circulated news about the trials of the reformists on social media were also imprisoned. By 2013, many reformists had been silenced.

But their political agenda survives among young online activists who use pseudonyms to remind audiences of the plight of the imprisoned dissidents. These hashtag activists regularly run internet campaigns to free the reformers and disseminate reports written by organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

In the fragmented scenario of activism in Saudi Arabia, the constitutional reformers have a clear political identity and a set of coherent political demands. Their activism has landed the majority of them in prison, but their lectures continue to inspire a generation of young Saudi activists, within the country or abroad.

More dangerous than jihadis

Under the pretext of fighting terrorism, the regime used the 2014 laws to send peaceful reformers to special courts that deal with jihadi terrorism. Although the reformers adopted peaceful means such as civil disobedience, sit-ins, and hunger strikes, they were regarded as perhaps more dangerous than violent jihadis as they offered a new political vision that appealed to many people.

Salman al-Awdah, now a moderate dissenting voice, has 1.5 million followers on Twitter.


Among those who were impressed by the peaceful ‘Arab Spring’ protests was Sheikh Salman al-Awdah, a popular veteran Salafi scholar. He had a long history of dissent that began with raising objections to the stationing of US troops on Saudi soil during the 1990 war with Iraq.

After several years in prison, he has re-emerged to preach. Occasionally he adopts a moderate dissenting voice and has called for fair treatment of prisoners of conscience. In March 2013, during the trials of the constitutional reformists, he circulated an open letter to the Minister of Interior (now Crown Prince) Muhammad bin Nayef, in which he said: ‘There are no clear regulations to normalize how prisoners are treated’ and calling for just trials ‘without which people would eventually go to the midan [public square] if their demands to free political prisoners are not met’.

Like most Saudi activists, al-Awdah is active on Twitter. His lectures, video clips and sermons circulate widely, not only inside Saudi Arabia but also among Muslims around the world. He has over 1.5 million followers; the regime watches such people carefully.

Hashtag youth

Other activists focus on issues like youth unemployment, low salaries, housing shortages, inadequate urban infrastructure, and pervasive corruption.

Many Saudis believe that their oil-rich country could do more to improve welfare services and distribute national wealth. They see their Gulf neighbours, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, enjoying a higher quality of life thanks to government provisions for education and health.

Saudi activists regularly post YouTube videos of crumbling urban infrastructure, poor school buildings and inadequate hospitals, especially in the peripheral regions outside the main cities.

Housing shortages in the vast desert kingdom are a regular cause of discontent, especially the confiscation and appropriation of land by senior royals.

Young citizens use the internet to highlight the barriers that encircle vast plots of land acquired by princes, dubbing the kingdom mamlakat al-shubok, the ‘kingdom of barbed wires’. Occasionally, locals organize sit-ins to block government plans to clear land for development and prevent bulldozers from forcibly removing residents. Clashes over land in various regions have been caught and circulated via video clip.

This type of activity has the potential to strengthen local responses to corruption and injustice. It remains sporadic and unorganized due to the fierce repression faced by any leaders or organizers. But it might mature and develop into a hard-to-ignore grassroots movement.

Defiant women

Gender relations remain among the most oppressive in the world. But in recent years Saudi women have become bolder and more vocal in their demands for recognition and equality.

In December 2015, for the first time ever, Saudi women participated in municipal elections, as candidates and voters.

Riyadh resident Azza al-Shmasani takes part in a protest against the ban on women driving.

Fahad Shadeed/Reuters

Although many are not impressed by the half-elected municipal councils, women activists such as Hatoun al-Fassi, who runs the Baladi (my country) campaign to introduce women to ‘the culture of elections’, have welcomed them. ‘We are not accepting anything less than being acknowledged, or granted our full legal capacities and rights. The obstacles that women are facing are a reflection of women’s place in society. We don’t have an independent body of representation, we’re not seen as autonomous, we are always seen next to a man,’ she said.

The turn-out to register to vote was not high, perhaps because many Saudis are disillusioned with municipalities and the limited powers they have.

Women have yet to be granted the right to drive, despite several online campaigns calling upon the king to lift the ban. In 2013, women activists designated 26 October as a day to defy the ban. But they failed to attract a large cohort willing to take the risk. Several women who were courageous enough to drive, such as Wajiha al-Huwaider, Manal al-Sharif and Lujain al-Hithlul, were imprisoned. On 1 December 2014 Lujain al Hithlul drove her car from the United Arab Emirates with the intention of crossing the border to Saudi Arabia. She was arrested at the border and kept in prison for 73 days.

The campaign to drive continues. But the regime is keen to avoid a collision with conservative elements, as it needs their support domestically and at the international level. The regime relies heavily on the religious establishment for its legitimacy and does not want to antagonize it. There seems to be a pact in place between the princes and this religious establishment. The former are granted full freedom to deal with foreign affairs and the economy while the latter is in charge of domestic social, educational and judicial matters.

Organized and maligned

Perhaps the most politicized and best-organized dissidents are to be found among the Shi’a minority of the oil-rich Eastern province. Since the late 1970s, Shi’a activists have been more vocal in demanding real equality, cessation of bigoted religious fatwas against them, and full civil rights.

In 2011 clashes between security forces and Shi’a protesters led to 20 deaths among young activists who staged regular demonstrations in Qatif and Awamiyyah. There were also several deaths among security forces.

After several rounds of protest, many Shi’a clerics were imprisoned, the most famous being Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr who was accused of orchestrating protest between 2011 and 2013. He received the death penalty, which was carried out earlier this year in a highly publicized day of execution that claimed the lives of 47 prisoners. His young nephew, Ali, arrested when he was 17 after participating in an anti-government protest, was sentenced to death by crucifixion and beheading in 2015.

Executions, often held in public, are on the increase since King Salman came to power in 2015.


Shi’a activism, which remains confined to Shi’a areas, is described by the government as an Iranian conspiracy against the Sunni kingdom and many Saudis accept this narrative. In the current wave of sectarianism sweeping the Arab world, it is difficult to see how Saudi Shi’a can overcome their isolation and build bridges with the rest of the country. Their intellectuals and political activists have tried to do so but their calls for real citizenship and equality have fallen on deaf ears. Neither the government nor substantial sections of society are ready to accept the Shi’a as full citizens, thus undermining national cohesion and threatening peaceful coexistence.

Given its fragmented, unorganized and sporadic nature, activism in Saudi Arabia may appear limited in its ability to instigate real political change. But there are signs that dissent is mounting and benefiting from new media to articulate visions and criticism of the regime.

The regime too uses the new media to intimidate, spread propaganda and undermine activists. Any observer of Saudi affairs cannot miss the heated debates that have migrated to the virtual world for lack of alternative platforms. Even disgruntled and side-lined princes have taken to Twitter to lament their marginalization. One such person, who goes by the name of Mujtahidd (@mujtahidd) circulates stories from within the tight circle of senior princes, exposing corruption and intrigues.

Current Saudi activism and dissent may lead nowhere. But there are clear signs that citizens have already moved beyond total obedience and acquiescence.

It may take a small incident to spark serious uncontrollable challenges to the leadership. Dissent can then erupt without the forces of repression being able to contain the outcome.

Madawi Al-Rasheed is a Saudi-born visiting professor at the London School of Economics. Her latest book is Muted Modernists, published by Hurst in 2015.

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