A democratic tide seems to be sweeping across the Arab world. Even the traditional Arab monarchies and emirates are changing in its wake. Kuwait now allows women to vote; Qatar has embraced an ambitious reform program; Bahrain has shown great tolerance of mass demonstrations; and the United Arab Emirates is allowing something like a free press. But Saudi Arabia continues to be deeply wary of any sort of change, and thus remains a huge and seemingly immovable obstacle to region-wide reform.
Although the Saudi ruling family, the Al-Saud, is under enormous pressure to follow the example of its neighbors, internal resistance to doing so remains very strong. So the Al-Saud have become Janus-faced: looking in one direction, the royal family encourages democratic reformers to speak out; looking in the opposite direction, it jails them when they do.
On May 15, in a closed trial without legal representation for the accused, three leading reformers - Ali Al-Dumaini, a well-known journalist and poet, and university professors Abdullah Al-Hamid and Matruk Al-Falih - were condemned and sentenced to prison terms ranging from six to nine years. Their crime was to call for a constitutional monarchy. The official verdict states that they threatened national unity, challenged those in authority, and incited public opinion against the state while using "foreign," that is, Western, terminology.
Not long after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, these liberal reformers joined with 160 other professionals to write and sign a petition to Crown Prince Abdullah asking for reforms. The petition called for the monarchy to work within constitutionally prescribed limits, and for an independent judiciary. The reformers believe that such reforms are the only way for Saudi Arabia to survive the threat of violence, instability and national fragmentation that is looming on the horizon. Only a constitution, they argue, can restore much-needed legitimacy to a political system that is widely perceived as deeply corrupt and inept.
Abdullah, Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler in place of his incapacitated half-brother King Fahd, is keen to be seen as a champion of reform. He received the proposals with a warm welcome in January 2003. But his half-brother and more powerful rival, Prince Nayef, the interior minister, ordered the arrests, trial and imprisonment of 13 reformers in March 2004. Abdullah offered not a peep of opposition, leaving the reform agenda that he initiated in a political netherworld.
In order to maintain absolutist power and to minimize public anger, the Saudi princes, led by Nayef, asked the reformers to sign an agreement that they would never again ask for reform. (Nayef bans the very word "reform" from public discourse, because it suggests that there is something wrong with the system; his preferred term is "development.") Of the 13 reformers who were arrested, 10 submitted to this demand, but the other three refused and have paid the price. They remained in jail in Riyadh without legal representation until the final verdict. Those who submitted had their passports withdrawn, lost their jobs and were forbidden to speak to the press.
Under regional and international pressure, the Saudi ruling family has constructed a Potemkin village of reform while retaining absolute control over all political developments. Earlier this year it staged partial, tightly-regulated municipal elections, with no independent opinion permitted to influence when and how the ballots were held. The entire female population was excluded, and only a quarter of the male population was eligible to vote. Inevitably, Wahhabi Islamists did best.
The Al-Saud face two threats: one from violent Islamists, the other from liberal reformers. There is every indication that they fear the reformers far more.
Perhaps the princes believe that it is easier to kill "terrorist" criminals than to crush demands for social justice. Indeed, killing violent Islamists and Al-Qaeda affiliates is applauded by the international community, especially the United States, as success in the "war on terrorism." But as the Saudi regime hunts down and kills violent domestic extremists, it is quietly tightening the noose around all those who want moderate reform. This repression of liberal reformers passes unnoticed in the wider world, with America's silence particularly noticeable.
This silence is vital to the princes, for what the Al-Saud care about most is American support. As things stand in Saudi Arabia, the U.S. administration has no credible ally for change outside of the existing regime. So, unlike in the Ukraine, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Lebanon, it does nothing to encourage popular opposition. As long as the Saudi regime meets America's oil needs and fights Islamist radicals, it will continue to receive American support and silence - and hence its tacit consent.
But turning a blind eye is shortsighted, for America and for the Saudis. Those who make peaceful revolutions impossible make violent revolutions inevitable. The liberal reformers who have been jailed could have paved the way for a peaceful transition to a reformed Saudi Arabia. By jailing them, the regime has made it clear that violence is the only avenue open to those seeking change.