Some ulama in the desert kingdom are beginning to speak out against the crimes of the House of Saud. While the ‘Arab Spring’ has not affected the kingdom as much as others, how long will it escape the storm?
Could 2013 be the year when the revolutions of the Arab Spring finally reach Saudi Arabia? Thus far, Saudi Arabia has played a duplicitous role in the revolutions that began in early 2011. It has been instrumental in financing and arming rebels in Libya and Syria while simultaneously sending its forces to Bahrain and Yemen to brutally repress protesters there. It also threw its weight behind the Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian tyrant Hosni Mubarak until the final days of their rule. However, protests for political reform in Saudi Arabia and calls for the overthrow of the House of Saud have themselves been rare, until recently.
There are multiple reasons for lack of a strong movement for revolution in Saudi Arabia. The primary factor that has placated people in the kingdom has been the role of the religious establishment. The monarchy has established numerous complex patronage networks that include leading religious “scholars” who legitimise Al Saud’s family rule. These scholars have promoted the family as “defenders of Islam” through their efforts in constructing masjids worldwide, publishing copies of the Qur’an and hosting pilgrims at the Holy Sanctuaries. As a result, even when sections of the public criticize certain policies of Al Saud, these scholars invoke fatwas to deflect dissent.
In March 2011, after rulers in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen were overthrown, the Council of Senior Scholars in Saudi Arabia issued a fatwa declaring petitions and demonstrations to be unlawful and prohibited in Islam. This campaign to terrify people into believing that attempting to remove Al Saud from power is haram and likely to result in punishment in the hereafter has succeeded at a time when the masses in the region have conquered their fear of worldly punishments. Like most of the Arabian world, the intelligence services of Saudi Arabia, the Mabahith, are also greatly feared on account of their brutal treatment of suspected political opponents. They operate with impunity and tales of torture have acted as sufficient deterrent to those inclined toward political reform. However, as that trepidation steadily dissipates, the fear of acting sinfully against the commandments of Allah (swt) is exploited to maximum effect.
Secondly, as has been its practice for decades, the Saudi monarchy has successfully bribed most of its population with cash handouts and promises of reform. In order to contain the uprising, the monarchy announced a series of benefits for citizens amounting to $10.7 billion. These included funding to offset high inflation and to aid young unemployed people and Saudi citizens studying abroad, as well as writing off some loans. As part of the Saudi scheme, state employees saw a pay increase of 15%, and cash was made available for housing loans. Critically, no political reforms were announced as part of this package. In doing so, Al Saud was able to appeal to the base instincts of their subjects in exchange for accepting the status quo.
Thirdly, the few protests that have taken place have been deliberately presented by Al Saud as minor disturbances in predominantly Shi‘i areas such as Qatif, al-Awamiyah, and Hofuf, leading to a wave of popular support for the crackdown on demonstrators. The Shi‘is have been economically discriminated against in Saudi Arabia for decades and are widely perceived to be a fifth column representing neighbouring Iran. Their protests are not deemed to be demonstrative of bona fide grievances but deliberate attempts to cause internal strife to weaken the country to further Iran’s regional interests.
Nevertheless, the early signs of a budding revolution are becoming visible due to the increasing popularity of social media such as Twitter and Facebook with many scholars now regularly using them to encourage political reform. One such scholar is Shaykh Ahmad Musa Gibril, an American-Saudi citizen who, alongside his father Shaykh Musa Gibril, was imprisoned in the US in 2004. Since his release last year, Shaykh Ahmad has dedicated his time to highlighting the plight of prisoners around the world and in particular the scholars being held in Saudi dungeons including Shaykh Nasir al-Fahad and Shaykh Suliman al-Alwan, who have been held without trial for over a decade due to their outspoken views on the ruling regime in Saudi Arabia and the United States. Nasir al-Fahad’s crime was to denounce a most-wanted list of 19 men publicized by the Saudi regime in May 2003. Shaykh Ahmad has fully engaged the social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook to bring their cases to public attention.
On December 5, 2012, Shaykh Suliman al-Alwan was released a week after a Twitter campaign led by Shaykh Ahmad and an article about his case that he published. It later emerged that while in prison, al-Alwan was offered the post of Grand Mufti if he retracted from his views. The regime also offered to air his speeches on major channels but he refused. He was not put on trial for many years and it was only after Shaykh Yusuf al-Ahmad began to air views against arbitrary detention that al-Alwan was taken to court. Nevertheless, he refused to defend himself and questioned the legitimacy of the court. One of his supporters reported that al-Alwan never prayed to Allah (swt) to get him out of the prison but to make him firm upon the din as there was no benefit in getting out of the prison if one did not remain firm on din.
Inspired by the result, on December 18, 2012, Shaykh Ahmad began a global Twitter campaign and day of support for al-Fahad. The call was to end his unjust imprisonment and torture. The campaign went viral and demonstrations also took place outside Saudi embassies around the world. Within one month of the campaign, al-Fahd’s wife received her first phone call from her imprisoned husband in six years and was allowed to visit him shortly thereafter.
Saudi Arabia is steadily falling from its mantle of being beyond criticism, a position it had enjoyed with impunity from large sections of the Muslim world for so long. Several campaign groups are now exposing how the regime that claims to uphold the Shari‘ah and represent the interests of the Muslim world, imprisons and brutally tortures the scholars of truth. In October 2011, the Islamic Human Rights Commission published a briefing entitled “Saudi Arabia’s Political Prisoners: Towards a Third Decade of Silence” to raise awareness about the situation of such detainees. More recently, Cageprisoners launched its Saudi Torture Campaign in which it released the testimonies of five men recently released from a national security detention facility in Madinah, the city of the Prophet (pbuh). The men testified to the systematic use of torture and ill-treatment with the goal of extracting false confessions. These coerced confessions were subsequently used to convict them. Crucially, the men overcame their fear and named the individuals who tortured them to enable future legal action of some sort to be taken. For many, the thought of such atrocities taking place within the sacred city of the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) will come as a great shock and one that is likely to prompt them into action. Muslims around the world will also be incensed by the recent news that CIA drones being used to murder Muslims in Yemen have been operating from a secret base in Saudi Arabia for the past two years. The base was explicitly set up by the CIA to try and assassinate Imam Anwar al-Awlaki, the US-born shaykh who was very popular in much of the Western world for his eloquent speeches and sermons.
All of this has led to a rapidly increasing number of Muslims both outside and crucially inside Saudi Arabia coming on to the streets. Recently, over 100 people demonstrated in Riyadh demanding the release of thousands of people detained without charge for as long as 15 years. Further north in Buraydah, around 30 people held a similar rally outside the Board of Grievances. Most were women, an achievement in and of itself. As expected, they were detained but unlike in the past, this did not scare the people into silence. Two days later, another protest erupted in Buraydah outside the Safra prison where the women were being detained with their children. Motivated by what happened in Buraydah, 101 Saudi clerics from Qasim signed a petition demanding that detainees held for security reasons should be given a trial or released.
It seems the fear factor is rapidly dissipating and with religious endorsement from scholars such as Shaykh Ahmad Musa Gibril steadily spreading, the tide may begin to turn against the illegitimate rule of a single family. It would, however, be unrealistic to assume that the family rule would end soon. It may take years but the process has definitely started. As Saudi society accesses international opinion regarding the monarchy through social media, Al Saud will find the pillars of its rule eventually challenged that would lead to weakening and, finally its collapse. Until then, Muslims throughout the world must raise their voices to expose the crimes of the ruling family against the people in the Arabian Peninsula. The terrible harm being inflicted by the oppressive regime on innocent civilians demanding no more than their fundamental rights must be exposed and every effort made to consign it to the dustbin of history.