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As Saudi Arabia celebrated its national day on September 23rd, six activists in exile decided to mark the occasion with an announcement of their own: they are founding a political party.
The National Assembly Party, or NAAS, “aims to institute democracy as a form of government” in the kingdom, according to the first declaration. They continue to say:
By establishing the party we are keen to prevent the country from sliding into unrest, violence, civil or regional wars. We seek to lay a foundation for a peaceful political change that aims first and foremost to protect human rights and development, and to reject exploitation of our Islamic religion for repressive or political means, while guaranteeing the freedom of belief for all, preserving the beneficial achievements and institutions of our society, protecting the country’s security and unity, and ensuring its prosperity.
The founders include Canada-based dissident Omar al-Zahrani, UK-based academic Madawi al-Rasheed as well as Abdullah al-Odah, a legal scholar who currently lives in the US. All of them have been critical of the Saudi government for years from abroad, and it remains unclear if or how the formation of such an entity would change their approach to political activism.
Al-Rasheed told Reuters that NAAS would work with international organisations like the United Nations and human rights groups, without agitating for protests in the kingdom. “The timing is very important...the climate of repression is only increasing,” she added.
This is not the first attempt to launch a Saudi opposition political party in recent years. In February 2011, as the Arab Spring wave of uprisings started sweeping through the region, a group of Islamists announced establishing the Islamic Ommah Party. Some of the founders were shortly arrested after that and one of them was sentenced to jail in 2016.
The Ommah party remains active through their social media channels controlled from abroad. The same goes to London-based dissidents Saad al-Faqih and Mohammed al-Masaari, who left the kingdom in the mid 1990s and carried out their opposition activities under different banners, most recently as the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia and the Party for Islamic Renewal, respectively.
Al-Faqih and al-Masaari have depended on fax and later satellite television before the internet became the home for political protest in a country where there is no space for such activities on the ground (although they have called for street action in the past).
Except for al-Rasheed, the founders of NAAS belong to a new generation of activists, the majority of them moved into exile during the last five years as the already narrow margin for political freedom of expression shrank further even as the country opened up socially and culturally as part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reform plans.
The growing number of Saudis who left the country —some sought asylum abroad, others opted to stay silent while keeping connections back home— as a result has been a source of concern for the government. As I wrote in the Financial Times last year, the royal court even commissioned a study into the phenomenon:
The study recommended that the government take a softer approach in its dealings with dissidents by offering them incentives options for return rather than pressuring them and hardening their resistance.
Some people in exile have been approached as part of that effort, but the Saudi reaction to the case of former intelligence official Saad al-Jabri shows that tolerance for any dissent remains rather limited despite the intense scrutiny by the international community of the kingdom in the aftermath of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder.
NAAS founders are presenting their decision to start the party as an attempt to save the country from the crown prince. It is probably too early to see if they will gain enough traction to effect change. But veteran opposition figures such as al-Faqih and al-Masaari are skeptical of the party’s potential, with the former accusing the founders of appeasing the west by adopting a non-religious language and the latter calling it “dead on arrival.”
Notable among NAAS founders is Ahmed al-Mshikhs, a Shia activist from Qatif, who appeared on the Zoom call announcing the party formation only to declare his withdrawal a few days later and raising questions about unity and coordination among the dissidents.
Mshikhs was one of several activists who met with the Eastern Province governor in March 2011 as authorities sought to calm down a wave of protests inspired by Arab Spring demonstrations in neighbouring Bahrain. He was considered a moderate who could mediate between the government and protesters. Extreme elements at the protest movement even named him on a list of “traitors” in March 2017.
However, Mshikhs was arrested few months later over what local media called “terrorism-supporting activities,” including the production of a documentary shown on a foreign channel and was deemed harmful to the country’s reputation. This appears to be a reference to a BBC documentary from 2014 about the unrest in Qatif.
With the threat of a trial in the terrorism court looming, Mishkhs has apparently fled the country and kept quiet since then until his appearance on the day NAAS was announced. The court in April 2019 published a statement saying the man has has failed to show up to trial and that he would be sentenced in absentia if he continued to miss the hearings.
In a related development, the organisation that Khashoggi was working on in the months before his assasination was finally launched on September 29th in Washington DC. Democracy for the Arab World Now, or DAWN, describes itself as:
a nonprofit organization that promotes democracy, the rule of law, and human rights for all of the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). We believe that peace, security, dignity, and prosperity in the region can only be achieved by democratically elected governments that respect human rights and abide by the rule of law.
The group is led by Sarah Leah Whitson who has previously worked for 16 years in Human Rights Watch. She told the New York Times that the new organisation would be “a mix between a think tank and a human rights watchdog that would focus, initially at least, on authoritarian states with close ties to the United States — Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.”
Among the common factors between NAAS and DAWN is al-Odah who was named as research director of the new organisation. He is also the son of prominent cleric Salman al-Odah who was among those arrested in September 2017 and remains in detention.