Dissent has grown since the gulf war

June 30, 1996|By Milton Viorst

SAUDI ARABIA'S royal family is convinced it presides over a country that is peculiarly blessed.

It feels it has created a fusion of political and religious power ideal for an Islamic society. It is puzzled that other Arab states do not emulate its system.

It vows it will not have an army -- ike its neighbors Syria and Iraq -- which can take over the state. It sees the disorderly parliaments of Kuwait and Egypt as warnings against the temptations of democracy.

King Fahd, 74, who suffered a stroke in November, transferred power on Jan. 1 to his half-brother Crown Prince Abdullah, 72. The House of Saud insists there will be no succession crisis.

The Sauds are proud of their leadership, which they say was vindicated in 1991 when Saddam Hussein's army stood at the border and the Saudi people rallied round.

Yet to the royal family's dismay, discontent has risen steadily since the Persian Gulf War ended. The war was not popular -- it aroused no nationalist fervor and was at best supported as a necessary evil.

Before and after the fighting, many questioned the government's judgment in summoning Americans and other foreigners -- an infidel army -- to defend the country against aggressive fellow Arabs.

Where, they asked, had the billions gone that had been spent over the previous decade on national defense?

On Nov. 13, a car bomb in Riyadh killed five U.S. military personnel were killed and two Indians. About 60 people were injured.

For weeks the government's only announcement was a denial -- skeptically received -- that internal forces were responsible. Iraq or Iran, it said, was the most likely culprit.

Some six months later the Saudi government beheaded four Muslim militants convicted of involvement in the bombing.

And on June 25, 19 U.S. military personnel were killed by a truck bomb in Dhahran.

Most Saudis agree the trouble started when the government brought in U.S. and foreign troops to fight the gulf war.

The royal family, they felt, thereby defaulted on the basic compact of the state, under which the many lesser tribes have pledged their loyalty to the Sauds, a strong tribe, in return for protection.

The war drove many formerly silent Saudis to turn a critical eye on the system.

In the fall of 1994, Safar bin Abdel Rahman al-Hawali, a clerical critic of the royal family, was arrested in Mecca, where he taught at the Islamic university.

A few days later, Sheikh Salman bin Fahd al-Audah, who had denounced the royal family from the podium of his mosque in Buryada, was taken into custody. Audah's arrest by anti-riot troops over the protests of hundreds of his supporters -- though blacked out by the Saudi press -- was clandestinely videotaped and disseminated throughout the country.

That week as many as 1,000 dissidents were secretly detained in a countrywide sweep. Reports of the arrests published in the international press were officially dismissed as "lies."

The government finally admitted seizing 157 men on charges of sowing dissent. Twenty-seven remained in custody, Audah and Hawali among them. Most, it said, were released after confessing error, but the government warned of dire consequences for repeat offenders. In May 1991, barely two months after the war ended, about 400 Islamic intellectuals, Audah and Hawali among them, submitted a letter to King Fahd calling for reforms.

The government, in fact, lumped the 1991 signers with the 1979 extremists' calls for an end to the Saud family's corruption, ostentation and imitation of the West.

But Hawali and Audah went further, demanding equality before the law, an independent judiciary and popular participation -- though not necessarily democracy -- in decision-making. The organizer of a new protest was Muhammad al-Massari, a practicing Muslim about 50 years old, with a doctorate in theoretical physics from the United States.

A faculty member at King Saud University in Riyadh, he had been a sporadic critic of the government, but the gulf war turned him into a full-time dissident -- with followers among businessmen, professors, judges and other professionals.

On May 3, 1993, in Riyadh, Massari announced the formation of the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights -- a group devoted to human rights and political reform. The announcement shattered the royals' lethargy. Several days later Massari was arrested.

Tried and convicted of heresy, Massari remained in custody until early 1994. A few months later he slipped across the border into Yemen and turned up in London, where he established a CDLR office.

Under Saudi law, political organizing is prohibited and even many critical Saudis acknowledge, with some embarrassment, they have no stomach for defying the rules.

Yet there is no doubt the Saudis are attracted by the dissidents' daring. Their culture is politically repressive and also imposes a rigid social conformity -- extending to what is read and how people dress. The recent calls for reform -- whatever the reforms may be -- seem almost intoxicating.

The royal family has denounced the dissidents as fanatics who are degrading Islam for impious ends. They cannot, however, conceal their pain, for the dissidents have put them on the defensive in their own game.

Milton Viorst, who recently visited Saudi Arabia, is the author of "Sandcastles: The Arabs in Search of the Modern World." This article is adapted from a longer version in Foreign Affairs.

Pub Date: 6/30/96

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