April 29, 2004


Being a Saudi political activist means learning to do jail time: Despite government constraints tied to his release, Mohammad Saeed Tayeb still dreams of democratic reform. (Faiza Saleh Ambah, 4/30/04, CS Monitor)

Shortly after noon prayers men in long white Saudi thobes and headdresses trickle into the living room, greeting [Mohammad Saeed] Tayeb with kisses and hugs. "Welcome back, father of Shaimaa [his eldest daughter]. Thank God for your safe return." Two Filipino waiters walk around the long rectangular room carrying trays filled with steaming glasses of red and green tea and Arabic coffee.

Tayeb's cellphone continuously interrupts the buzz of conversation. He fields calls from the BBC and Radio Sawa, the American-sponsored station. "We welcome you as a pleasant addition to the region's media," Tayeb tells the Sawa correspondent. "But I'm sorry, I'm not at liberty to speak to the press. I've been asked not to. Yes, you can say I said that."

The arrest of Tayeb along with about a dozen other pro-democracy activists last month has stalled the reform movement in Saudi Arabia, the most serious in the country's recent history. Most activists have been released on condition they stop organizing public events and don't talk to the press. Three who refuse to cooperate without a lawyer are still in detention.

At an age when most men are thinking about retirement, Tayeb is a central figure in a group of some 50 political activists. The group includes liberals from the Red Sea coast city of Jeddah, Islamists from the capital Riyadh, and Shiites from the Eastern province. They have been working together for the first time, gathering signatures for petitions asking for a constitution, economic and political accountability from the royal family and government, and more rights for women.

"Under the guidance of Mohammad Saeed Tayeb, Matrouk al-Faleh and Abdullah al-Hamid [Al Faleh and Al Hamid are still being detained], Saudi reformists were more active in the past three years than in the previous four decades," says Saudi writer and reformist Ahmad Adnan. The reason, says Mr. Adnan, is a political environment altered by the Sept. 11 attacks, terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia, the US-led war in neighboring Iraq, and calls for reform by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah.

Over the past year, the reformists have gathered more than 850 signatures in several petitions calling for reforms, talked openly in newspapers and on TV satellite channels about the urgent need for change in the kingdom, and held a public meeting in Riyadh, the first of its kind.

But the reform-minded Prince Abdullah has been silent since the arrests March 16, leading many to suspect that his powerful half-brothers, Interior Minister Prince Nayef and Defense Minister Prince Sultan, engineered the arrests without his approval.

It's an especially delightful irony that one of the results of 9-11 will be the more rapid liberalization of Saud'i Arabia.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 29, 2004 10:51 PM

Well that's certainly encouraging news.

(That he wasn't beheaded, that is.)

Posted by: Barry Meislin at April 30, 2004 3:14 AM

The journey of a million miles...

Posted by: oj at April 30, 2004 7:28 AM


Come to Saudi Arabia: Where the husbands are never in the dog house!

Posted by: Roger Kaputnick at April 30, 2004 5:04 PM

>...the more rapid liberalization of Saud'i

It ain't over til the fat mullah sings.

The Land of 10,000 Princes and Wahabi Islam could still try to crack down and Keep Everything Just As It Is (until one day everything REALLY blows sky-high), or they could wind up blowing up or burning down a good chunk of the world in the process.

Posted by: Ken at April 30, 2004 8:37 PM