Saudi Arabia detains founders of new activist party

The strong winds of change that are blowing throughout the Middle East have finally come to the Saudi Arabia. In last few weeks, some small demonstrations have taken place in different cities. Although, these demonstrations were small but none the less are beginning of an important development in this key Gulf country. It might take more time before the eruption of a mass movement of unemployed youth, layers of public sector workers and middle class people including doctors, engineers, lawyers and professors.

It is just the beginning of a long process but an important one.

Saudi authorities have detained several activists who tried to set up the kingdom’s first political party, human rights activists said on Saturday.

The top oil exporter and close U.S. ally is an absolute monarchy that does not tolerate any form of public dissent, does not have an elected parliament or any political parties.

Saudi Islamists and opposition activists this month launched a political party called the “Islamic Umma” in a rare challenge to authority inspired by mass struggle triggering regime change in Tunisia and Egypt.

This party seems to be dominated by the moderated  Islamists which are opposing both the religious clergy and al-Qaeda ideology and calling for the reforms in the country. At this stage only activists are members of this party and some of them have been campaigning for several years for greater political freedom in Saudi Arabia. These activists are well known in Saudi Arabia and widely respected for their struggle.

“There are four in custody now. Five were arrested, two were outside the country and the others were questioned and released,” said Mohammed al-Qahtani, a Riyadh-based activist and head of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, who has been following the case.

“Saudi suppression of political activity is as swift as it is total,” Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

“At a time when people throughout the Arab world are out on the street seeking greater freedom, the Saudi secret police seem determined to nip any similar demands in the bud.”

The new party had called on its website for holding elections, more transparency of government decisions and an independent judiciary.

There have been previous attempts to form parties but the group was the first to announce it publicly, analysts said. Its members include Islamist intellectuals, lecturers, human rights activists and lawyers.

In 2007, Saudi Arabia arrested a group calling for a constitutional monarchy and most are still in detention, according to activists.

The strong winds of change that are blowing throughout the Middle East  has finally come to the Saudi Arabia.

More than 70 Saudi academics, headed by Sheikh Dr. Nasser al-Omar, have forwarded a letter to Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, demanding reforms, including the firing of “opportunists” and corrupt officials, putting an end to public money wasting and placing government contracts and transactions under public supervision.

They also called in the letter released Tuesday, to “eliminate the injustice and the oppression of all the detainees, who did commit a criminal offense or breached security. The letter also demands to rehabilitate the detainees’ families, and “take urgent action to mitigate the effects of unemployment among young people.”

The signatories also called in their statement “to provide adequate support to individuals and families living below the poverty line.” In addition, they advocated in their statement to open the doors for free print media, radio and television.

The statement also called to treat the Shiite minority in a fair way.

Another group of some 120 Saudi academics, activists and businessmen have called for major reforms including the establishment of a “constitutional monarchy” in the kingdom, in a statement posted Sunday on the Internet. “We will submit these requests to King Abdullah at a later stage,” said Khaled al-Dakhil, a political science professor at the King Saud University and one of the 123 signatories of the petition.

AFP quoted Dakhil “We have high hopes that these reforms will be implemented,” as saying. “Now is the time.”

The petition posted on the Internet calls for the election rather than appointment of a Shura consultative council, and the creation of a constitutional monarchy. It also calls for expanded participation of women in social and political life in the kingdom.

In a rare sign of rising discontent in Saudi Araba, a group of Saudi web activists also launched an online campaign calling for political reform in the world’s biggest oil exporter.

The Saudi campaign, which was launched on Facebook on January 29 and has 364 members so far, called for a constitutional monarchy, an end to corruption, an even distribution of wealth, and a serious solution for unemployment, among other demands.

“Before it is too late, I call the government, and the king, to reform the country and heed our requests… if they wish to continue ruling this country, ” one group member, Safaa Jaber, posted on the group’s wall on Friday.

“I call on our people to take on the responsibility of demanding their legitimate rights for complete reform of our country before the situation evolves into something undesirable,” she said.

Activists in Egypt have used the social media websites to rally supporters online and coordinate protests.

Saudi Arabia does not allow public dissent. Last month, police detained dozens in the port city of Jeddah after they protested against poor infrastructure following deadly floods.

HRH King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who is around 87, has tried some cautious reforms since ascending the throne in 2005 but diplomats say opposition from powerful members of the royal family hinders his room for maneuver.

“Those who are unemployed, who demand better work conditions and better civil rights.” The Facebook page is calling for:

– Automobile factories to be opened in every major area and industrial training for young people.
– Open factories and provide better training in the world of technology, programming and maintenance
– electrical plants in each region
– electric appliance factories to be opened.
– Video game factories (like Playstation) to be opened in every area.
– Food and dessert factories to be open in every region and jobs allocated for women.
– Factories providing children’s clothing, shoes, mattresses and other works to provide jobs for women.
– An increase in minimum wage to 6,000 Rials (1700 US dollars)  and more employment of young people.
– Open more schools
– election of the Shura Council
– an independent judiciary
– an electoral district governor of the people
– have no one above the law

The Facebook page also notes that there are unemployed people in every home in Saudi Arabia and 76% of the population does not have affordable housing. These demands clearly show the level of the consciousness of the activists and especially of young educated people. At this stage, the demands are of the democratic nature and more focused on reforms within the system. But as the movement will spread and masses will come into action than more radical demands will come out.

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