Sunday, August 07, 2005

A different perspective on King Fahd's death

I, for one, honestly don't have an opinion on what King Fahd's death means. My main reaction was he has not really been ruling since 1995 anyway & I doubt anything will change in the Kingdom. My friend, Zahir Janmohamed interviewed Ali Al Ahmad who is the founder of the Gulf Institute, who offers an interesting perspective.

From alt.Muslim:

Can you please describe to us the significance of King Fahd's death. Will his death translate into any changes in Saudi Arabia?

Ali Al Ahmed: There won't be many changes in the policy in Saudi Arabia because the country is run by the Al Saud family and the death of one person in that tribe is not going to change their monopoly on power in the country.

There might be more clamor for power within the tribe and there might be a rise in tension between the factions.

His legacy is a mixed legacy. He instituted a campaign of Wahhabisation (sic) of Saudi Arabia and he spent millions building mosques and Wahhabi centers around the world. He spent billions financing wars in Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq which of course led to more disastrous results and millions of lives lost.

Internally he has failed to use the massive oil funds to build schools and roads. We have more mosques yet the infrastructure is crumbling and Saudi now has fewer universities than many developing countries.

Another thing about his legacy is that oil prices rose so society changed from a country of simple towns to an opulent place for many.

I have no good memories of his legacy during his reign. I was arrested when I was 14 years old with my parents, brothers and sisters. Two of my cousins were shot by Saudi police for protesting. My brothers were arrested again and among all of us, we spent a combined 10 years behind bars. And for nothing—we did not demand a change in government or incite violence and this is true to many Saudi families and my family is an example. I cannot travel. My passport has been seized and millions like me have similar stories.

He was an oppressive dictator.

Can you speak for a moment about the developments in Saudi Arabia such as the municipal elections, the creation of a Saudi human rights commission. Many see this as a positive step towards a more democratic, transparent society while others see these as overtures to the West. Can you speak then about two things: first the human rights situation in and second the status of free speech? Will there be more rumblings in Saudi Arabia now that King Fahd is dead?

AA: I think people are more willing to criticize but at the same time the human rights situation has deteriorated in the past two years. The acts of terrorism have been used to silence and to arrest peaceful writers and reformers. We have thousands of people who have been fired, harassed or imprisoned.

To say that Crown Prince Abdullah is a reformer is far-fetched. You do not expect an 80 year old man to wake up and change his mind. That's wild as they say in America.

It's a PR campaign and some US officials are buying it but the reality is not towards reform. Just a few years ago, I heard that Abdullah was upset that women were driving golf cars in the hospital. If he will not allow women to drive even in the hospital, how can we expect him to give women the right to vote?

Another example is that Abdullah has never incorporated Shia in the National Guard or promoted Shias to any position in the army even though this is in his power.

I do not expect anything good coming from him unless we have the US and the European Union telling him what to do but I do not see that happening.

You touched on the subject of Shias. I would like you to elaborate on that, given that you are from the eastern province of the Qatif and that the subject is very personal to you. Can you give us a little background on the conditions of Shias and some demographic info about Shias. Has there condition either improved or worsened given the rise of Shia political power in Iraq?

AA: The Shias of Saudi Arabia are Arabs who are indigenous to the eastern province. They are the majority in the eastern province although the Saudi government has tried to encourage Sunnis to move to the eastern province to outnumber Shias by giving them jobs while qualified Shais were denied.

For example, two days ago I read that the two of the three highest students in Saudi Arabia were not accepted into college because they are Shia.

Saudi Arabia has systematically denied Shia by denying them access to education, work, and basic human rights. Even those members of the royal family who are portrayed as progressive and modern, like Princeton graduated Prince Faisal, has never allowed a Shia to serve as ambassador despite the significant percentage of Shia in the country.

There is a sense that Shia are under occupation. And the situation is getting worse. There was a plan written by a Wahhabi cleric named Nasir al Omar who wrote about converting Shias to Sunni Islam or else face execution.

Unfortunately it's at a social level now as well. The hatred of Shia is so intense that killing of Shia civilians is widely accepted.

But wait. Some say the situation for Shias has improved. I mean you've got municipal elections in the Eastern (ie mostly Shia) province, you've got warmer relations between Iran and Saudi, and for the first time Shias can now hold their Muharram procession. What do you say to people who say that their situation is improving?

AA: I use the word elections with great hesitation because women were banned. These elections were held for less than half of the seats in the municipal power and that too for a municipal body that has little power. I mean North Korea has elections. Is it a democracy?

Four months after these elections, there has not been a single move to form these councils. These elections were done like fireworks—just for show. We might not see these municipal councils ever.

On the issue of Shia, allowing someone to have a procession is not a change in policy. The true test for religious freedom is to allow Shias to serve in religious, military, academic, or government posts—this is the true test. In Riyadh, Shias can not even open a mosque.

And now the Saudi foreign minister talks about the marginalization of Sunnis in Iraq. The Sunnis in Iraq are of equal percentage of the Shia in Saudi yet in Iraq Sunnis hold positions in the new government. In Saudi, they do not. It is shameful.

What we can do in the US to address these human rights problems that you have outlined?

AA: I think what can be done in America is to speak about these issues and to not allow (the US) administration to overlook these issues. For example in one breath we see Condoleeza Rice criticize the Iran elections but remain silent about Saudi elections despite the obvious fact that women could not vote in Saudi.

We have to hold Saudi Arabia to a higher standard. Write to your member of Congress and tell that that Saudi Arabia is not reforming and that for women, Shias, foreign laborers, and ordinary people, Saudi Arabia is an oppressive government.

The irony is that people of Saudi Arabia are instructed to follow the "divine" rule of the Saud family but their conditions are inhumane. I urge people to free the people of Saudi Arabia.

Zahir Janmohamed just learned that RSS is, in addition to an extremist group in India, a fancy internet syndication service. To listen to the complete interview with Ali Al Ahmed, check out Janmohamed's podcast Qunoot on iTunes or read his blog at