by Zafar Bangash (Main Stories, Crescent International Vol. 43, No. 2, Jumada' al-Akhirah, 1435)
Calling for reforms is “terrorism,” withdrawing your allegiance to the monarchy is “treason” and contacting international news organizations about human rights violations in the kingdom will land you in prison. Welcome to the Saudi kingdom!
Has the Saudi regime shot itself in the foot over its terror decree? Many observers inside and outside the kingdom think so. The Saudi royal decree (No. 44) issued by the aging and one-foot-in-the-grave King Abdullah targets two sets of people. One can be considered to be those that are militant and pose a direct physical challenge to the regime. This includes al-Qaeda (the mother organization led by the late Osama bin Laden that spawned other outfits), al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Jabhat al-Nusra, Hizbullah in the Hijaz (not to be confused with the Lebanese resistance group Hizbullah) and the Houthis of Yemen.
The second group comprises those calling for reforms or some basic rights, like representation and consultation in the affairs of the kingdom or respect for human rights, as well as women’s groups calling for the right to drive. Yes, in the desert kingdom, women cannot drive because it is alleged they might entice men to acts of immorality! Those inside and outside the kingdom that have some sympathy for al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun in Egypt, branded by the Saudi regime as a terrorist organization, will also be branded as terrorists and punished.
The list is not only long but also vague. Almost anyone that the regime does not like can be branded a terrorist. After all, what criterion is being used to judge people: how can calls for reform be declared a terrorist act? If this is the criterion, then King Abdullah himself must be denounced as a terrorist and punished. After all, in September 2011, he declared a series of “reforms” in which he announced that women would be given the right to vote in future municipal elections (in 2015) and also have the right to be appointed to the Shura Council (emphasis added).
This announcement was enough to send the BBC into a frenzy of excitement about the “reformist” king. Emily Buchanan, BBC correspondent for world affairs, called it an “extraordinary development.” The BBC website went on to pontificate, “Saudi Arabia is a conservative society which has been inching towards reform under the leadership of King Abdullah, himself a reformist. About 10 years ago the king said women should be central to the Saudi economy. Since then, change has been gradual for fear of a religious backlash.”
One wonders how much bakhsheesh the Saudi embassy in London gave to the BBC to write such drivel. Further, what are Ms Buchanan’s thoughts about the “reformist” king now that he has branded calls for “reform” an act of terrorism?
What the king giveth, he taketh away! But the aging Saudi monarch had not given anything; he had merely promised to allow some space for reforms. He has rescinded even that promise now.
In a press release on March 20, the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a scathing report about the Saudis’ new terrorism regulations. Titled, “Saudi Arabia: New Terrorism Regulations Assault Rights,” the report decries the new draconian restrictions that “threaten to close down altogether Saudi Arabia’s already extremely restricted space for free expression.” It quotes Joe Stork, HRW deputy director for Middle East and North Africa as saying, “Saudi authorities have never tolerated criticism of their policies, but these recent laws and regulations turn almost any critical expression or independent association into crimes of terrorism. These regulations dash any hope that King Abdullah intends to open a space for peaceful dissent or independent groups.”
Some of the provisions in the new terrorism law are so outlandish that they would make even the most tyrannical regimes blush with embarrassment, much less one claiming to be governed by the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet (pbuh). Article 2 of the new regulations, for instance, makes it a criminal offence to withdraw one’s loyalty to the country’s rulers. It says, “Anyone who throws away their loyalty to the country’s rulers, or who swears allegiance to any party, organization, current [of thought], group, or individual inside or outside [the kingdom],” would be considered a “terrorist” and prosecuted accordingly.
Under Islamic law, allegiance cannot be coerced. Consent must be given voluntarily. Despite claiming to be ruled by the Qur’an and the Prophet’s (pbuh) Sunnah, it is bedouin tradition that is being imposed on the people. It is the same bedouin mentality that is at work in the prosecution and imprisonment of such well known human rights activists as Abdullah al-Hamid and Mohammed al-Qahtani. Last month (March 9), they completed their first year in prison, serving 11 and 10-year sentences respectively, for criticizing the government’s human rights abuses and for membership in an “unlicensed” political and civil rights organization. The problem is, there are no licensed human or political rights organizations in the kingdom. None is allowed.
In March 2009, when a group of lawyers, academics and activists approached then Interior Minister Nayef bin ‘Abd al-‘Aziz for a meeting after their application to register a human rights organization was rejected by the Interior Ministry, the prince gave them a hearing. After they had finished their polite presentation, Nayef told them bluntly, “We took this kingdom by the sword and we will keep it by the sword.” He then had all the academics promptly arrested and thrown in jail.
Al-Hamid and al-Qahtani were convicted for “breaking allegiance with the king,” “slandering the religiosity and integrity of the Supreme Council of Religious Scholars,” “sowing discord,” and “attempting to shake the internal security of the country by calling for demonstrations.” Under the new regulations, several of these charges have now been classified as acts of terrorism.
The regulations have assumed farcical proportions. For instance, several religious “scholars” in Saudi Arabia believe that the earth is flat. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz ibn Baz, the late former chief priest of the kingdom, was one of them. Blind from childhood, he insisted the earth was flat because “when I walk on it, I do not find it round!” he would insist. If anyone were to say that the earth is round, he would be declared a terrorist and charged under the new regulations for slandering the “religiosity and integrity of the Supreme Council of Religious Scholars.”
Al-Hamid and al-Qahtani belong to the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), an organization that the interior ministry refused to grant license to and is therefore declared “illegal.” Other members of the organization that are serving sentences for convictions on similar charges, include Mohammed al-Bajadi, Omar al-Saeed, and ‘Abd al-Kareem al-Khodr. A jailed member, Fowzan al-Harbi, is on trial before the Riyadh Criminal Court on charges that include “participating in calling for and inciting breaking allegiance with the ruler,” “explicit libel of the integrity and religiosity of the Supreme Council of Religious Scholars,” “participating in setting up an unlicensed organization” — namely, ACPRA — “publishing details of his investigation,” and “describing the ruling Saudi regime — unjustly — as a police state.”
The regime’s campaign of terror was not launched after promulgation of the new regulations. There has been an on-going campaign to silence independent activists and peaceful dissidents through intimidation, investigations, arrests, prosecutions, and imprisonment. This intensified in the wake of the Islamic Awakening that swept the region in January 2011 and drove two long-entrenched dictators from power in quick order. The Saudis’ panic reaction was evident in the dispatch of troops to Bahrain to shore up the minority dictatorial Khalifa regime as well as massive crackdown on the Shi‘i population in the eastern province.
At the same time, the Saudis joined the criminal conspiracy against Colonel Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in Libya as well as against President Bashar al-Asad in Syria. In Libya, the Western-Arabian alliance was successful and Qaddafi was lynched by a mob in public. Syria has proved a tougher nut to crack. In fact, the Saudis have started to realize that like Osama’s al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, the terrorist outfits it is supporting in Syria can return to haunt them, hence the new regulations.
Under the guise of fighting terrorism, the Saudi regime has cast its net wide and clamped down on all manner of dissent, however, innocuous. The promulgation of the “Penal Law for Crimes of Terrorism and its Financing” is the blunt instrument the Saudis are using to criminalize peaceful dissent and calls for reform. The Saudi judiciary is notorious for handing down harsh sentences against those the regime does not like and giving a free pass to its supporters.
To get a sense of the oppressive nature of the new law, it would be worthwhile to consider some of its provisions that criminalize various acts.
Under these provisions, if a Saudi citizen were to use the internet or access a website that has material considered hostile by the regime, he would be considered a “terrorist.” Similarly, attending a conference at which the regime’s atrocious human rights record is discussed would make them liable to prosecution.
The regime itself organizes conferences at which speakers are only allowed to praise its great efforts for the “advancement” of Islam (of its narrow version), “improving” the lives of Saudi citizens and the benevolent nature of the ruling family. When a regime resorts to such tactics to try and burnish its jaded image, it is a sure sign that it is nearing its end.