The 10-year prison sentences a Saudi court handed down last weekend are more significant than the sad fate of two moderate political activists who persisted in calling for a constitutional monarchy and respect for human rights. The saga is a microcosm of the political dilemma facing the House of Saud and, by extension, a challenge to U.S. policy, which from one administration to the next supports the regime while remaining silent about Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses.
The two dissidents, Mohammad Fahad al-Qahtani and Abdullah al-Hamid, were accused of, among other things, sedition, providing inaccurate information to the foreign media and founding an unlicensed human rights organization, the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (known as ACPRA). Saudi Arabia permits no civil society or political organizations. But Qahtani, a chubby, cherub-faced man in his mid-40s, determined long ago that he would seek to change the kingdom. In 2009 he told me that he would “challenge and change the system legally,” so that his young children would live in a freer society.
Qahtani is no bomb-thrower. During our interview, he recalled arriving at Philadelphia’s Temple University (where he earned his master’s in economics in 1993) so eager to avoid pork, which is forbidden to Muslims, that he asked a waitress whether each item on an unfamiliar American menu, including Coca-Cola, contained the offensive meat. While in the United States, he managed to avoid pork but picked up a penchant for freedom.
Qahtani and Saudi authorities have been playing cat and mouse almost since his return to Riyadh in 2003 to teach economics at the Saudi Foreign Ministry. The regime long has preferred to bribe or buy wayward citizens than to beat them. When its preferred methods fail, however, the Sauds, like most Arab autocrats, can be ruthless. In 2008, Qahtani hosted a current-affairs show on government television. But after he helped found ACPRA in 2009, his show was canceled. Such harassment is intended to alter behavior or at least ensure that opposition is limited to words, never actions.
Yet Qahtani and his colleagues persisted. In 2010 they wrote an open letter to King Abdullah asking for judicial reform and calling on the nation to “engage in a peaceful struggle to resist tyranny.”
Because most Saudis depend on government jobs, or outright largess, open defiance is rare. The regime may toy with and torment citizens, like a cat with a timid mouse, but it tries to avoid arousing ire. After the Arab Spring took hold, however, even in docile Saudi Arabia some citizens have become more assertive.
Qahtani and ACPRA finally crossed a red line in January 2012 by asking the king to remove his heir, Crown Prince Nayef, who during four decades overseeing internal security was responsible for imprisoning any number of Saudi citizens without charges or trials. This request defied an explicit ban (established after the Arab Spring began) on criticizing the royal family, or its compliant religious establishment. Nayef died soon after but his son quickly replaced him, and small-scale Saudi protests multiplied.
Qahtani’s campaign against the judiciary holding Saudis without charge was taken up on social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook but also by shrouded Saudi women — mothers, wives and daughters of imprisoned men who began regularly to protest at the Interior Ministry in Riyadh. Worse yet to the regime, some clerics supported the women by asking the king to quickly resolve the issue. Moreover, the protests spread to Buraidah, heartland of fundamentalist Wahhabi Islam, where in February women fearlessly burned a photo of the new interior minister in front of security cameras.
“If the Ministry ignores this new activism, it is a disaster for its authority,” Saudi political scientist Madawi al-Rashid predicted on the Al-Monitor Web site on Feb. 28. “If it suppresses it, it is a catastrophe, as Saudis may not always be tolerant of security agencies messing with their women.”
Although the trial of Qahtani and Hamid had dragged on for nearly nine months, it soon concluded abruptly. The judge ordered decade-long prison terms and ruled that ACPRA, which had been tolerated for four years, would be disbanded and its assets confiscated. The challenge Qahtani and his colleagues initiated had expanded beyond an unauthorized human rights organization to questioning the regime’s authority and clearly had to be stopped.
Yet efforts to snuff out dissent pose their own dangers in a society rife with mostly unexpressed discontent. Salman al-Ouda, a popular sheik, tweeted to his 2.5 million followers after the sentences were announced: “Prisons and sacrifices strengthen causes and attract more people.”
Today’s aged Saudi rulers share the governing strategy of Muawiyah, a long-ago successor to the prophet Muhammad. Asked why he had ruled nearly 20 years when three of his four predecessors were murdered, Muawiyah said, “I hold a hair between me and my people. When they pull, I yield. When they yield, I pull.” That philosophy still describes the thin margin for change in Saudi Arabia. But the growing divisions between the kingdom’s rulers and ruled suggest a tougher tug of war that risks breaking that hair.
So far the Obama administration, like its predecessors, has remained silent about most Saudi abuses of human rights activists whose only sin has been to seek peaceful change. That supine support doesn’t diminish the risk of political challenge to the royal family; it merely increases the risk that American standing among Saudis will be further eroded.
Karen Elliott House, a former publisher of the Wall Street Journal, is most recently the author of On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines — and Future.