Saudis cling to outlet for free expression
The kingdom has told some private discussion groups to register or quit altogether.
JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia
For 14 years she has been gathering with some 150 other female Saudi academics for monthly diwaniyas, or salons. At the home of one of the group's members in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, they talked about the issues of the day: the plight of Saudi women, elections, civil society, and domestic violence.Skip to next paragraph
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But now the professor worries that the government is beginning to stifle her salon and others, further backing away from making substantial reforms.
These discussion groups, which have been growing in number in recent years, are among the only outlets for collective expression in a country where public gatherings and political parties are banned.
She says she received a troubling call from a government official a few weeks ago asking her to register the group with the Ministry of Interior or face police action against her group. "The official kept calling me, but I said I would not believe what he was saying unless he could send me something in writing," recalls the academic, who asked for anonymity for fear of retribution.
"My husband was finally called in to have a meeting with a Riyadh Governorate official who told him that a new law was going into effect that would force all discussion groups in private homes who have guest speakers to be registered with the Ministry of Interior," she says.
Not only will these discussion groups apparently have to be registered with the government, but each may have to apply for permission from the appropriate ministry depending on the topic being discussed, according to this academic.
But the kingdom appears to be sending mixed signals to the Saudi salons. Some groups have been told to stop meeting altogether, while others have not received any notification to either register or disband. No one has yet received any order in writing.
"These groups will have to register themselves with their local police only if they hold these meetings in [rental vacation houses]," says a Ministry of Interior spokesman, who also denied that people holding such meetings in private homes would have to register.
Sami Angawi, the head of the Makkiah discussion group in Jeddah, which meets Tuesdays at his home, said he had not been asked yet to register or stop the meetings that take place in his home.
But the Al-Ain Cultural group in Al-Hassa, which is 15 years old and mainly discusses literary topics, was told to stop meeting in January 2007. But this did not stop the group, which has around 60 members, from participating in an arts showcase organized by the Saudi government.
"We haven't had any regular meetings since then," says Mohamed al-Naeem, the head of the group and a school principal. "But a smaller group of us have been meeting to produce a book of our collected poems and short stories."
The slow pace of substantial reform
Following the first municipal elections in more than 40 years in February 2005 and the enthronement of reformed-minded King Abdullah in August 2005 and his subsequent pardon of three jailed reformists, Saudis felt there was a glimmer of hope for political reform in the country.