Being a Saudi political activist means learning to do jail time

Mohammad Saeed Tayeb is part of a core group of democratic reformers who the Saudi Arabian government detained last month.

In the days following Mohammad Saeed Tayeb's release this month from a Saudi jail for political activism, the gate to his two-story house and his front door were left open.

It was a small but symbolic act.

Shortly after noon prayers men in long white Saudi thobes and headdresses trickle into the living room, greeting Mr. Tayeb with kisses and hugs. "Welcome back, father of Shaimaa [his eldest daughter]. Thank God for your safe return." Two Filipino waiters walk around the long rectangular room carrying trays filled with steaming glasses of red and green tea and Arabic coffee.

Tayeb's cellphone continuously interrupts the buzz of conversation. He fields calls from the BBC and Radio Sawa, the American-sponsored station. "We welcome you as a pleasant addition to the region's media," Tayeb tells the Sawa correspondent. "But I'm sorry, I'm not at liberty to speak to the press. I've been asked not to. Yes, you can say I said that."

The arrest of Tayeb along with about a dozen other pro-democracy activists last month has stalled the reform movement in Saudi Arabia, the most serious in the country's recent history. Most activists have been released on condition they stop organizing public events and don't talk to the press. Three who refuse to cooperate without a lawyer are still in detention.

At an age when most men are thinking about retirement, Tayeb is a central figure in a group of some 50 political activists. The group includes liberals from the Red Sea coast city of Jeddah, Islamists from the capital Riyadh, and Shiites from the Eastern province. They have been working together for the first time, gathering signatures for petitions asking for a constitution, economic and political accountability from the royal family and government, and more rights for women.

"Under the guidance of Mohammad Saeed Tayeb, Matrouk al-Faleh and Abdullah al-Hamid [Al Faleh and Al Hamid are still being detained], Saudi reformists were more active in the past three years than in the previous four decades," says Saudi writer and reformist Ahmad Adnan. The reason, says Mr. Adnan, is a political environment altered by the Sept. 11 attacks, terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia, the US-led war in neighboring Iraq, and calls for reform by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah.

Over the past year, the reformists have gathered more than 850 signatures in several petitions calling for reforms, talked openly in newspapers and on TV satellite channels about the urgent need for change in the kingdom, and held a public meeting in Riyadh, the first of its kind.

But the reform-minded Prince Abdullah has been silent since the arrests March 16, leading many to suspect that his powerful half-brothers, Interior Minister Prince Nayef and Defense Minister Prince Sultan, engineered the arrests without his approval.

Though political gatherings are banned in Saudi Arabia, the group of 50 core activists flew in to Riyadh from various parts of the country last month and held a two-hour meeting in a hotel restaurant. In the meeting, chaired by Tayeb, they discussed their common goals and agreed to meet again the following month.

"Many of these guys were meeting each other for the first time," says lawyer Essam Basrawi, who was present. "But we had to leave quickly because the security forces gathered outside once they heard about the meeting," he says.

The authorities were angered by the public show of defiance after Prince Nayef had warned the leading activists, during a meeting in his office in December, against public demands for reform. In that meeting Prince Nayef criticized Tayeb for inviting the American consul in Jeddah, Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, to several of his Tuesday evening salons, says Mr. Basrawi.

"He accused us of being influenced by calls for reform and said to us, 'your demands are the Americans' demands,'" says Basrawi. But several of those present pointed out that they'd been jailed for their political demands a long time before the recent US administration's call for political reforms in the region, Basrawi says. Abdullah al-Hamid, in detention now, reminded the prince he was jailed in the 1980s for trying to set up a human rights group, says Basrawi.

Tayeb has been pressing for greater democracy in the kingdom for four decades. In 1963 he wrote an article in local newspaper Al Nadwah asking for an elected parliament. Since then he's been an advocate of setting up of civic groups and the right to free speech. For his troubles, he was jailed five times, spent a total of six years behind bars, including 88 days in solitary confinement. In the mid-70s he was forced to leave his job at the Hajj Ministry after a stint in prison, and turned to publishing. While heading one of the country's largest publishing houses, he studied law in his spare time, and got his degree the year he turned 60, hoping to work in human rights when the time was right.

In a country where dissidents are often co-opted or brought back into the fold as prodigal sons, Tayeb has been both in and out of favor with the Saudi royal family. In January he was appointed as a member of the Council for the National Dialogue, set up by Prince Abdullah to improve communication between Saudi men and women from different schools of thought.

During the oil-boom period lasting from the mid-'70s till the early '80s, when petrodollars pouring into the country pushed thoughts of political reform aside, several senior members of the ruling family, including Prince Nayef and Prince Sultan, were guests at his Tuesday night literary salon.

In recent years, the Tuesday night meetings became one of the rare public forums here for political discussion. Journalists, diplomats (both the German and American consuls), and even a son of the king came to hear what Saudis were talking about. Prince Abdul-Aziz bin Fahd came in December to check in on the reformists, says businessman and writer Jamil Farsi.

"People were very honest about what kind of reforms they wanted, the need for an end to corruption and quick economic and political changes. He listened very well and said the government was planning to implement reforms real soon," says Mr. Farsi.

But Tayeb and the others, impatient at the slow pace of change, continued to speak out for more democracy in several interviews leading up to their arrests. "We are facing grave dangers. The only guarantee against them is reforms. The only alternative to reforms is destruction and falling into the hellish circle of violence and extremism. That's what we're trying to avoid," he told the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation earlier this year.

At the request of authorities, Tayeb has suspended his Tuesday evening gatherings, but he still receives many visitors. At a recent gathering, a line of guests sit opposite Tayeb, as smoke drifts out of their water pipes. "So, with the constraints placed on you now, what are your plans?" asks a guest. "What are you doing about Matrouk (al-Faleh) and Abdullah al-Hamid?" says another.

He smiles and replies: "I will continue to dream of a better future for my country and I will make an effort to achieve that dream. As for Matrouk and Abdullah, they are my friends, my comrades, my partners in a common goal. I understand that they will be represented by a lawyer very soon. I am following their case closely and will continue to do so until they too are back to a normal life."

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