Gresh on Saudi Arabia

Last week at the Al Jazeera conference in Doha I had the opportunity to have a chat with Alain Gresh, the French Arab world specialist and editor of the respected left-wing monthly Le Monde Diplomatique. I was asking him how the paper was doing after its financial difficulties in recent years, and he said things were going well in their international partnerships in which they bundle translated excerpts of Le Monde Diplomatique with local newspapers -- for instance, and rather surprisingly, the very staid Al Akhbar in Egypt. He had just negotiated the launch of a Saudi edition, something he was quite surprised about, and said he had an article on Saudi Arabia coming out in the forthcoming issue. It's now online, and is an interesting overview of emerging moderate dissident voices in the kingdom, ranging from former Salafist types to shiny new televangelists and Shia community leaders:
Sheikh Hassan al-Saffar wears the white turban of Shia dignitaries. Though youthful in appearance he can look back on a long career as an activist. He fled in 1980, after the Shia insurrection that followed the 1979 Iranian revolution. He only came home in 1995 after signing an agreement with the monarchy. His freedom of movement has improved but he is still subject to changes in the political climate. Some of his books are published in Saudi Arabia, others only in Lebanon.

AL-SAFFAR emphasised his concern at the discrimination the Shia community still suffers. “It must end. The national dialogue certainly removed some barriers between Sunni and Shia but we went no further than debate. There is a lot of pressure from conservatives in the religious institution to oppose such meetings. Sometimes on our side too. I have met important Sunni sheikhs, such as Salman al-Awdah. He has adopted a positive attitude and I think he has changed. But he is under pressure from the conservatives and he does not want to lose the influence he enjoys. We need joint initiatives to facilitate change, both among the Sunni and Shia.”

He concluded: “We are not advocating rapid change. We have no desire to turn the country into another Algeria. But the authorities must allow the groups to voice their concerns, creating a situation more conducive to reform. They must establish rules for political life and let in any forces that wish to take part, which in turn will make them act more responsibly. For the time being there is no definite project and the few positive signals we have seen are no more than ink marks on paper.”

Many intellectuals and militants share this gloomy outlook. At the end of 2003 a largely Islamist group published an appeal for constitutional reform. Professor Abdullah al-Hamed, one of the group’s spokesmen, acknowledges that the aim was to assert their existence as an independent movement. He said: “We were asking for a shift from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy. The Riyadh appeal was a call for tolerance, unity and humanitarian values. It was mainly the work of people inspired by Islam, because I thought it was important that a religious group in favour of democracy should state its case. The aim was to pull the rug out from under the feet of those calling for the overthrow of the regime and to quell the violence. We consider that a state cannot be Islamic unless it is democratic and governed by a constitution.”
Gresh wondered whether the Saudis would reprint it. I doubt it.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.