A few days before last week’s attack by armed militants on the US consulate in the port city of Jeddah, a scuffle was taking place outside a courthouse in the capital, Riyadh.
Dozens attended the trial of the “Riyadh Triad”—the three pro-democracy activists jailed since March for calling for a constitutional monarchy.
Several people, including journalists and relatives of the trio, were arrested and detained, and the trial proceeded behind closed doors.
The trio’s lead attorney, Abdulrahman Al-Lahem, was also absent—he had been arrested and jailed a few weeks earlier for his criticism of judicial practices.
At their opening trial in August the three activists—Ali Al-Demaini, Matrouk Al-Faleh and Abdullah Al-Hamed—were accused of issuing “statements and collecting signatures” as well as “using Western terminology”.
Ali Al-Demaini is a poet and novelist who has written extensively on the modernist poetry movement in Saudi Arabia.
Matrouk Al-Faleh is a professor of political science. Abdullah Al-Hamed is a former professor of comparative literature at an Islamic university.
Collectively they represent what has been described as the new libero-Islamic trend—bringing together New Left and “enlightened” Islamist ideas.
This movement, part of a 9/11-inspired “Saudi Spring”, transcends the traditional Saudi political spectrum running from left wing or liberal secularists through to radical Islamists.
Instead it argues that the fundamentals of Islamic law are essentially egalitarian, opposing the state-sanctioned Wahabi orthodoxy which denounces democracy as anti-Islamic.
Moreover, these new reformists are not anti-monarchy. Their call for what Al-Faleh calls a “progressive, civil, Islamic, participatory, and just society” will, they say, not only serve the interest of Saudi subjects, but will also ensure the survival of the royal family.
The public response to these reformists has been mixed. In the short term high oil prices may provide some cushioning for the large Saudi middle class.
But this is unlikely to prevent rising unemployment and a growing gap between poor and rich, which are fuelling discontent.
The arrests last March came as a huge blow to those who took the government’s talk of reform and press freedom seriously.
But this process was always limited. The period of unprecedented press openness also saw increasing arrests of journalists and editors.
Similarly, in the run-up to “half-half” municipal elections (only half the representives are elected and only men can vote), a new law was passed prohibiting public employees—almost 40 percent of the labour force—from opposing state policies in any way.
Faced with these attacks, some Saudi dissidents may be drifting into a state of hopelessness. But others still remain
resolute in their struggle for freedom, equality and justice.
In the words of Al-Demaini, “Oh prison master we are staying here/Until we see a coming of lightening, freedom and justice.”