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Disregarding the Saudi Arabian government’s ban on the establishment of political organizations, a small group of Saudi activists recently formed the Islamic nation’s first political party. It was but the latest event demonstrating the increasing vulnerability of the Saudi kingdom to revolutionary forces, like much of Middle East in general.
While the newly formed Islamic Umma Party remains committed to keeping Saudi Arabia an Islamist state, it does calls for political freedoms that it says “predate Islam.” A statement released by the party’s founders read in part that the Islamic Umma Party believes in “freedom,” “political pluralism, and the peaceful transfer of power, and the right of the [Islamic] nation to choose its governments.”
According to Sheikh Mohammed al-Qahtani, one of the party’s founders, the formation of the Islamic Umma Party “was a natural response to the development of the political situation in the region and the development of political action in the kingdom.”
Of course, the Saudi government has been in complete denial with respect to the political winds coursing through the Mideast. While many Saudis cheered on the uprising in Egypt, Saudi King Abdullah was labeling the Egyptian protesters as instigators who “have infiltrated into the brotherly people of Egypt, to destabilize its security and stability.”
Even when the Saudi government did officially acknowledge the news of Hosni Mubarak’s ouster as Egypt’s president, it made no mention of the anti-authoritarian tenor of the Egyptian rebellion. Rather, it welcomed “the peaceful transition of power in the Arab Republic of Egypt and expresse[d] hope in the efforts of the Egyptian armed forces to restore peace, stability and tranquility.”
That the Saudi Kingdom would wish a quick restoration of political order to Egypt makes perfect sense. The absolute monarchy has been privately fearful of the growing signs of unrest emerging within its own populace. In fact, much of the Saudi public’s discontent echos that which sparked the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings: high unemployment, official corruption, imprisonment without trial and the excesses of the ruling elites.
For example, while the Saudi government lists the country’s unemployment rate at 10.5%, unofficial estimates peg the number closer to 20 percent. Further compounding the issue is that 22 percent of the Saudi kingdom’s population lives below the poverty line, despite a three year anti-poverty campaign by the government.
On a recently posted Internet video, Saudi Arabian Mufti Sheikh Yusof al-Ahmad said that growing unemployment and poverty would lead regional unrest to “permeate into Saudi Arabia,” while further adding, “The way people express their anger has changed in an unprecedented way, due to the injustice and the feeling of being oppressed.”
That expression of anger recently surfaced when a series of heavy rains flooded Jeddah–Saudi Arabia’s second largest city– and caused massive property damage and left thousands homeless. When the government was slow to respond to the catastrophic situation, public anger culminated in a demonstration on January 28, 2011. While the protest leaders were quickly arrested, a film of the event was available for a few days on the Internet before it was removed by government authorities.
That protest was quickly followed by another one on February 6 in the capital city of Riyadh. There, a group of 50 Saudis, mostly women, publicly called for the release of imprisoned family members. Since 2003, the Saudi government has been accused by Amnesty International and other human rights organizations of falsely imprisoning thousands of reform activists. Chanting “God, free our prisoners,” the women marched in front of the country’s Interior Ministry before being dispersed by police.
Finally, Saudi activists have lifted a page from the social media handbook utilized successfully by Egyptian and Tunisian protesters and have launched an online campaign calling for political reform. In fact, social media has become such a popular tool that approximately 3 million Saudis use Facebook and Twitter, a jump in usage of 240 percent since 2009.
The activist demands include a call for a constitutional monarchy, an end to official corruption, and an even distribution of wealth. Perhaps nothing best summarizes the urgency and seriousness of their demands than one website which recently posted: “Before it is too late, I call the government, and the king, to reform the country and heed our requests…if they wish to continue ruling this country.”
Of course, who will eventually rule this absolute monarchy has been up for debate for some time and has added to the current unease. King Abdullah Ibn Abdulaziz Al Saud is 86 and has been suffering from back and heart ailments as well as signs of dementia. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al Faisal even had to fend off rumors that Abdullah had actually died on February 9.
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