Saudi dissidents target crown prince where it hurts: Washington

Why We Wrote This

Even in societies riven by differences, democracy can be a unifying ideal. In the face of repression, Saudis – including liberals, Islamists, Sunnis, Shiites, and former members of the military – have united to oppose the regime.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Hatice Cengiz, the fiancée of slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi, appears before a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee at the Capitol in Washington, May 16, 2019. Along with the advocacy group DAWN, she filed suit Oct. 20, 2020 in Washington federal court against Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and others over Mr. Khashoggi's murder.

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Pushed together by repression, disparate groups from Saudi Arabia’s long-fractured civil society are uniting in opposition to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. And forced to act in exile, the dissidents are set to prove that the road to change in Riyadh runs through Washington.

An advocacy group founded by slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi filed a suit this week against the crown prince in U.S. federal court, even as Saudi activists – united in a new party – began mapping out their goal of a democratically elected government.

These were among the first in a flurry of moves designed to damage Saudi Arabia’s ties with the West and provide a platform for the voices of the kingdom’s increasingly frustrated citizens.

“At this moment we agreed that this was a time to rise above all the divisions that have weakened Saudi civil society in the past, despite our different orientations and ideologies,” says Madawi al-Rasheed, a founding member of the new opposition party.

“The ability of all these small disparate groups to form a party attests to the really bad situation that has gripped the country the last five years,” she says. “Everyone agreed that democracy was the only way out.”

Forged together by Saudi government repression and forced to act in exile, an unlikely coalition of opposition factions has launched a campaign hitting the regime where it hurts the most: Washington.

An advocacy group founded by slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi filed a suit against Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in U.S. federal court this week, even as Saudi opposition activists – united in a new party – began mapping out their goal of a democratically elected government.

These were among the first in a flurry of moves designed to scuttle Saudi Arabia’s ties with the West and provide a platform for the voices of the kingdom’s increasingly frustrated citizens.

While dismissed by some observers and analysts as merely the latest in a line of Middle Eastern exile groups, the activists and dissidents say they have risen above internal differences and are set to prove that the road to change in Riyadh runs through Washington.

Pushed together by crackdowns, repression, and the harassment and arrests of their family members, disparate groups from Saudi Arabia’s long-fractured civil society are uniting in opposition to the crown prince, who is often referred to as MBS.

Just weeks old, the National Assembly Party – its acronym NAAS the transliteration of the Arabic word for “people” – began organizing as the first opposition party for a kingdom that lacks a constitution, bans political parties, and targets families as retribution for criticism of the state.

Its founding members include former members of the military, liberals, Islamists, Sunnis, Shiites, and tribes of different regions, who rarely shared a table. The party is now quietly expanding its membership base for the common goals of democracy, an independent judiciary, and an elected government.

Break with the past

NAAS says it has learned from previous reform movements that fractured along Islamist-liberal, Shiite-Sunni, geographical and tribal lines – divisions that were reinforced by state-sponsored divide-and-conquer-tactics.

“At this moment we agreed that this was a time to rise above all the divisions that have weakened Saudi civil society in the past, despite our different orientations and ideologies,” says Madawi al-Rasheed, a social anthropologist and NAAS founding member and spokeswoman, based in London.

“The ability of all these small disparate groups to form a party attests to the really bad situation that has gripped the country the last five years,” she says. “Everyone agreed that democracy was the only way out.”

NAAS’s public demand for democracy also breaks with the previous reform movements in Saudi Arabia, including nationalists and liberal princes in the 1960s, political Islamists in the 1980s, and a liberal reformist movement in the early 1990s.

Those movements accepted the Saudi monarchy and social contract as legitimate; criticism remained internal. Reformers posted “petitions” and “letters” to monarchs politely requesting political reform.

But growing frustration over increased repression and a deteriorating economic situation at home is driving Saudi citizens and activists to become bolder with their demands.

“The repression has become so pervasive that if you are a feminist, if you are an Islamist, if you are a professional, or just a citizen criticizing the government, you are a target and your family is a target,” says Dr. Rasheed.

NAAS says it is focusing on broader issues appealing to Saudi citizens, namely democracy, the economy, perceived corruption by members of the royal family, and ending the costly war in Yemen.

Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) is a think-tank and advocacy group founded by Mr. Khashoggi, who was assassinated in October 2018 by Saudi agents at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Based in Washington, DAWN pushes for human rights and democracy in the Arab world by holding regimes – and their enablers in the West – accountable for their abuses.

DAWN says dissenting figures within the Saudi government are providing it with support and leaked documentation, a sign, it says, of a “huge amount of anger” within the Saudi state.

“Logically, when you alienate the Shiite minority, attack liberals, jail prominent religious scholars, antagonize tribes, provoke your own royal family, and make it difficult for businesspeople to work with a politicized anti-corruption campaign, you can expect a wide amount of anger,” says Abdullah Alaoudh, research director for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates at DAWN. “This is giving us a lot of allies.”

His father, Sheikh Salman al-Odah, is one of dozens of reformers in Saudi jails and is currently facing the death penalty.

Trouble in Washington

The activists in exile, unable to organize or call for protests at home, admit that their scope is limited within Saudi Arabia – where observers are skeptical whether DAWN and NAAS could make ripples.

But the Saudi dissenters say their main focus is abroad as a gateway for change back home.

DAWN is embarking on a strategy naming the various officials, rulers, and mid-level civil servants and judges who carry out oppression and repression in Arab states, detailing their crimes and pressuring Western governments not to host them.

The group is focusing on “specific authoritarian countries like Saudi Arabia that depend on American policy and protection for their own stability and security,” says Mr. Alaoudh. “We are using this reliance on the U.S. as leverage and their network of interests against them.”

Considering Crown Prince Mohammed’s close alliance with the Trump administration, which he relies on for political cover to continue a costly war in Yemen and embark on campaigns of repression at home, Saudi dissenters and activists say they are now targeting this very relationship as a pressure point.

In what they vow to be the first of many legal cases, DAWN named Mohammed bin Salman and 20 co-conspirators in a civil lawsuit in Washington federal court Oct. 20 over Mr. Khashoggi’s murder, in a bid to officially link the Saudi ruler to the crime.

DAWN is already building further legal cases against other Saudi officials involved in abuses, targeting Saudi assets and financial interests in the U.S.

Targeting Congress

In some cases, DAWN says it will campaign for Congress to invoke the Magnitsky Act, which authorizes the U.S. government to sanction those it sees as human rights offenders, to target certain officials and ban their entry to the U.S.

The organization is also working to expose the K Street think tanks, public relations firms, and other institutions that take Saudi money to bolster the country’s image and gloss over its abuses.

DAWN is also actively campaigning to urge the American business community to refrain from doing business with a Saudi government many believe is attempting to whitewash its image.

NAAS and DAWN say they are already finding sympathetic ears in Congress, and are hopeful to further pressure the Saudi government on its human rights record under a potential President Joe Biden. As a candidate the former vice president has said he would treat Saudi Arabia as a “pariah.”

It couldn’t come at a worse time for the Saudi palace.

Riyadh is actively trying to rebuild its image in the West in the wake of the Khashoggi murder, the humanitarian toll of its disastrous Yemen war, and the ongoing detention and alleged torture of rights activists.

The Saudi public relations push has gained new impetus not only due to rising hostility in Congress, but also the prospect that President Donald Trump might lose.

American companies are seen as critical to Saudi efforts to attract foreign direct investment to jumpstart a struggling economy and realize the crown prince’s Vision 2030 plan to create a post-oil economy.

DAWN and NAAS say they are determined to make Saudi Arabia’s Capitol Hill charm offensive an uphill battle.

Says F. Gregory Gause, a longtime Saudi observer and head of the International Affairs Department at Texas A&M: “They will advocate and push policy types in Washington, and they will complicate MBS’s efforts to build and maintain good relations with the U.S., the U.K., and even the EU at a time when they are badly needed.”

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