Alwaght- Several weeks after a number of exiled Saudi dissidents published a historic statement of formation of a party to push the country to democracy, they perhaps never thought that by the defeat of Donald Trump in the US, their move will find room for being seen further.
The Saudi opposition forces in the US, Britain, and Canada led by the human rights activist Yahya al-Asiri in their statement said that “we declare the foundation of the National Assembly Party with its aim being the formation of a path democracy as a model of rule in the Saudi kingdom.
Al-Asiri, who is a former Air force officer, earlier had said the foundation of the party would take place in a sensitive moment to save the country.
Now the question is that how much this political party can attract support from Saudi society and how the movement towards the ideals of the party align with the realities of Saudi society while over the past months reports began to appear about policing atmosphere and suppression of the dissidents and rights activists with a direct order from the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Further search can lead to the fact that not only reformist approaches to transition from dictatorship to democracy have potentials of the rise in Saudi Arabia but also the kingdom has a record of such moves from the past decades.
Sahwa movement, the religious renaissance in Saudi Arabia
Definitely, the initial serious moves towards change in the Saudi society were led by a movement called Sahwa, or awakening. The foundation of governance and political legitimacy in the Arabian Peninsula date back to a several-century alliance, in 1744 specifically, between Al Saud and Al Sheikh whose basis is a type of power-sharing between the religious and political apparatuses. This key alliance, still standing despite many ups and downs, in addition to providing the ruling Saud family with religious legitimacy helped the authoritarian rule keep standing in the face of the opposition, especially the religious opposition using the specific interpretation the Wahhabi faith has of the religion and politics relation.
However, since the 1950s, gradually a new tendency engulfed the Peninsula’s religious movement that can be marked as the basis for religious renaissance and a factor spurring home pro-change moves. In the 1950s, under King Faisal, the kingdom offered refuge to thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members fleeing Egypt, Syria, and other Arab countries all to use them against the Arab nationalism and nationalist dispositions in the Arab world.
But the exiles propagated their ideology as they took state positions and led the education programs in the universities and schools. They incorporated in their mindset the elements of the Saudi religious culture.
Saad al-Faqih, the Saudi dissident and a member of the Sahwa movement, and also the leader of the Reform Movement said that the Sahwa movement was an outcome of the marriage of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi and Wahhabi ideologies of the Saudi state. A merger of two intellectual traditions, the Sahwa was successful to attract the younger generations and pro-change activists in the society, exposing the Saudi rule to danger. While traditionally the clergy entrusted the politics to the Al Saud, the Sahwa leaders encouraged to untraditional practices like participation-based politics and voting. They saw Islam as a comprehensive and practical tool paying attention to all aspects of life and society, even politics.
For example, following the first Persian Gulf War that started with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, these movements directed their criticism to the government which allowed the American troops deployment to Saudi soil. The criticism received a harsh response and the leaders of the movement like Salman al-Ouda, Awaaz al-Gharni, and Ali al-Omari were arrested.
The movement continued blasting the government in the next years and even called for reforms to the regime. The call was wonderful at the time and included requests for separation of powers, fight against corruption, and reform in the judiciary.
But it should not be forgotten that Sahwa is still a Salafi movement. However, a fear of the government from international developments like the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the Arab uprisings of 2011 caused the political vision of the movement to be a huge threat to the Saudi rulers. After the Arab uprisings, there appeared an apparent confrontation between the government and the Sahwa. The leaders of the movement like al-Ouda faced execution rulings. Recent political arrests demonstrated that Sahwa remains a standing challenge to the Saudi government’s power.
Saudi social molt and the show reforms
But in addition to the power gain of Sahwa that pushed to the margin the traditional vision of Wahhabism to Al Saud’s chagrin, over the past three decades the Saudi society changed considerably and this change should reflect on the political and legal institutions of the government, and its home and foreign policy as well.
This is the main sticking point between the ruling family and the pro-reform movement in the Arab kingdom. The civil activists find the government’s reluctance to address the political and social changes a sign of its unwillingness to make fundamental changes.
In 2007, the in-the-making pro-reforms movement presented its last request to the time’s King Fahad bin Abdulaziz, his Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, and Defense Minister Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz. The document was presented “in defense of the nation” and was signed by 306 men and women and a spectrum of the society’s elites including the lawyers, writers, university professors, women, business people, students, journalists, doctors, state employees, poets, literary critics, artists, and also social activists. The signatories were from across the country and included Sunnis and Shiites.
The most important reforms demanded were the separation of power, turning into an elected institution with legal powers the king-appointed Shura which an advisory council posing as a parliament, promoting the judiciary independence and legalizing the civil society institutions.
The demands went nowhere with the government crackdown. However, on October 13, 2007, the cabinet issued a statement announcing the plan to hold municipality elections in an uncertain time.
The interesting point is that the same demands are repeated in the statement of the exiled dissidents. It states that “we think that the power derives from people and this means that any mature individual has the right to vote and elect a representative in a fully-elected parliament with legal powers and the right to supervise the executive institutions.” The statement also called for the separation of the powers and foundation of an independent justice system according to a people-advocated constitution.
The repetition of these demands after more than a decade shows that although the educated and younger layer of the society welcomed some changes in the governance of the ruling family under the so-called social reforms of the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, failing to cherish human rights, give people the right to participate in the political process, form an independent judiciary, cut the king’s rights, form a genuine parliament, and allow political parties to act freely have drawn the people to frustration with reforms by the political system.
Meanwhile, the economic crisis is aggravating the situation for the government. The country is facing a huge financial crisis due to the burden of the additional costs, the low tax base, the oil price slump, and a ten-fold increase of the foreign debt. Moreover, the direct foreign investment in the country has decreased to one-tenth, while there have been no signs of growth of tourism or initiation of infrastructural projects in recent years. The ministry of finance is reportedly taking steps towards hard and urgent measures to cut the costs. Economists say that the crisis has destroyed the government’s constant power to inject palliatives into society.
At the same time, the protest potentials of Saudi Arabia’s tribal system should not be forgotten. Despite modernization and urbanization in Saudi Arabia, the tribes play a strong and important role in the social structure and classing. Many tribes are in several-century discontentment with the Al Saud rule and feel discriminated against. Naturally, a democratic new system will be advocated by the tribes.
Certainly, social discontentment and pro-reform tendency along with economic crisis and increase of the foreign Western pressures on the Saudi government, especially after Democrats in the US regain power, will develop a power of influence in the future.