Saudis cling to outlet for free expression

The kingdom has told some private discussion groups to register or quit altogether.

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.

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.

Indeed, there have been signs of some social changes on the streets of Riyadh. Women can be seen without the traditional head coverings and the country's religious police, who enforce the kingdom's strict moral code, are less obvious.

But the arrest of nine Saudi reformists on Feb. 10, 2007, dashed the last hopes of many who were hoping for more substantial reforms. And many see the government move to regulate salons as another sign the kingdom is backing away from allowing more political openness.

The arrests took place after the nine had signed a petition addressed to King Abdullah calling for political reform and the splitting up of the Ministry of Interior. If this were implemented, it would seriously weaken the powers of the interior minister, Prince Naif ibn Abdul Aziz, who is known to be strongly opposed to the reform movement.

"A group of us met with Prince Naif in January 2004 before we were imprisoned, and he strongly objected to the use of the term 'reform,' " recalls Matrouk al-Faleh, one of the three jailed reformists pardoned by King Abdullah in late 2005.

Faleh says that he believes one of the reasons that the nine reformers were arrested was that some of them were about to announce the formation of a political party, something the government has warned repeatedly it would not allow. "These arrests are a coverup on the part of the Ministry of Interior to kill any activation of democratic reform demands," he says.

The government has also accused some of the nine arrested reformists with sending money to "terrorists" in Iraq, a charge strongly denied by their lawyer Bassem Alim and the relatives of Saud Al-Mokhtar, one of the arrested reformists.

US Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), who is a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, says he also does not believe that the reformists were sending money to terrorists, telling United Press International on March 26, 2007, that "based on the evidence I have seen, it appears more likely that these men were actually democracy activists."

The nine jailed reformists have been denied access to their lawyers and families, and are being held in a secret location without being charged or tried in a court of law.

Still hope for change

Despite all of these setbacks, reformists like Faleh and the female academic are still optimistic that things will gradually improve in five to 10 years from now.

"We hope that King Abdullah will continue reform. We have some problems with some of our senior leadership who are opposing change. We don't believe that the Saudi public and the religious establishment are obstacles to reform," says Faleh.

"We want an independent judiciary and a code of public liberties that guarantee freedom of expression, participation and formation of civil society groups," he adds.

The female academic says that her group plans to apply for permission to continue operating. "These are very disturbing messages we are getting from them. Is the government serious about reform or not?" she asks. "So far, what we have seen have been only cosmetic reforms."

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