Thursday, March 10, 2011

Saudi Regime Braces for Democracy Protests

The following is the transcript from a radio interview with Mohammed Al Qatani, an economist and leading Saudi civil rights activist, conducted by Eleanor Hall, a journalist for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. She is the host of a daily radio broadcast news show called The World Today, which airs in Australia and in the Asia Pacific region. She has worked as a journalist in both radio and television in many different countries around the world, including the United States. She is based in Sydney.

ELEANOR HALL: While world leaders are understandably focused on the crisis in Libya could the world's largest oil producer be the next in line for violent change?

Saudi Arabian activists have called for a day of rage after Friday prayers tomorrow.

While large protests are unheard of in Saudi Arabia more than 32,000 people have so far supported the call on Facebook and thousands have also signed petitions calling for the monarchy which has Islamic religious backing to be bolstered by an elected parliament.

The Saudi government is noticeably nervous. Last week the regime announced a $37 billion aid package to the Saudi people and warned activists that security forces would crack down on any demonstrations.

The senior Islamic Council also deeming the protests un-Islamic. And there is already a big security presence on the streets.

One of Saudi Arabia's leading civil rights activists says the government has good reason to be nervous.

Mohammad al-Qahtani is the head of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association.

He said he hopes there is no violence tomorrow but that he just can't predict how many people may turn up after Friday prayers.

He spoke to me earlier from the Saudi capital Riyadh.

Mohammad al-Qahtani, who is organising this and how big do you expect this demonstration to be tomorrow?

MOHAMMAD AL-QAHTANI: Well to be frank with you we don't know who's behind it. You know they just publish stuff on Facebook but I think people are really motivated after what happened in Egypt and elsewhere.

The question is will it turn out to be a huge crowd or a small crowd or none is open. We don't know.

ELEANOR HALL: Why have Saudis not been on the streets demanding change in the numbers that we've seen in other countries in the region?

Is it because of state repression or that there's not such desperation for change in Saudi Arabia?

MOHAMMAD AL-QAHTANI: Well no there is desperation for change. You know I'll tell you there are injustice; there are grievances. People are thrown in prison arbitrarily and indefinitely.

But the problem is people are not really organised to work in a group. State oppression of course is a factor and it's quite effective.

You know a couple of years ago they arrest a couple of guys intending to go to a public sit-in and they're still in prison for a couple of years for their having the intention to do so.

Well the other element also - just a couple of days ago the government announced these restrictions forbidding demonstration and public protestation. So they use these restrictions to cripple the people and control the people.

Does it still have effect? It might. But it has weakened. And wait and see.

ELEANOR HALL: So you say that this is an anonymous internet call for the protests. There have also been petitions calling for change. How significant are these?

MOHAMMAD AL-QAHTANI: Well I think the petitions are an interesting phenomena because in the past you have a petition and you wait for a few years to get another petition.

But within two weeks you have four or five petitions and people are demanding exactly the same thing - establishing a constitutional monarchy.

So I think the change and the feeling for change is in the air.

But how much you will see a response by the regime by making concessions - I think they are not willing to do so unless they see real threats.

I think the coming few weeks will make the picture more clear.

ELEANOR HALL: What sort of size of protest would represent a real threat to the king?

MOHAMMAD AL-QAHTANI: Well see in the past Friday there were at least three demonstration in different cities.

And they made concessions to a Shia sect - they freed their political prisoners and they made promises for them to release so-called forgotten prisoners who have been in prison for more than a decade.

ELEANOR HALL: The king last week seemed to be trying to head off a revolt against him by handing out several billion dollars worth of social benefits.

Is that likely to succeed in dampening enthusiasm for change?

MOHAMMAD AL-QAHTANI: You see the issue is not really about money. People are really yearning for liberty, freedom, freedom of expression and so on and so forth.

You know people really need change. They want to see their fundamental rights be respected.

ELEANOR HALL: Just how restrictive is daily life for Saudi people under Sharia law?

MOHAMMAD AL-QAHTANI: Just imagine yourself a woman living in Saudi Arabia. It's tough.

And also let's say that you want to write your opinion and publish it on your website or blog - then you could be endangering yourself.

They do not respect really fundamental rights that distinguish a human being from an animal. So it's pretty tough.

ELEANOR HALL: You say that people want a greater role in the government. Is the king personally hated?

MOHAMMAD AL-QAHTANI: No not at all. I think the king is popular. But he could not deliver because there are people who are throwing obstacles in his way to introduce genuine reform to his people.

I think these tumultuous events that just happened throughout the Middle East might give them a chance to present genuine reform steps to his people maybe in the near future.

ELEANOR HALL: Is it significant that almost two-thirds of Saudi Arabia's population is under the age of 30? Is that significant in driving the mood for change within your country?

MOHAMMAD AL-QAHTANI: Most definitely. I think the revolt in Egypt in particular was led by these youngsters.

Likewise here with this demographic phenomenon we have it here in Saudi Arabia. And they see by their eyes the failure of the regime to provide jobs, genuine education. And they feel that they are really marginalised.

ELEANOR HALL: So is the regime showing any signs that it may compromise?

MOHAMMAD AL-QAHTANI: Not at all. I don't think they are willing really to make any concessions to the people.

So unless you know people showed up in great number then they might. But by then it's going to be too late.

ELEANOR HALL: So do you fear that if there is no compromise there could be violence - lives could be lost?

MOHAMMAD AL-QAHTANI: Well I hope not. I hope it's going to be peaceful. You see a lot of police cruisers tonight you know circling Riyadh streets.

On my way to my home tonight I've seen tens of police cruisers. And also you have police unmarked cars.

So I think it's wait and see. I won't be really surprised that if none show in the protestation.

But again no-one could predicted Egypt on the other hand and Tunisia.

I hope the police will not crackdown protesters. I hope by maybe tomorrow night they could announce something huge that could placate the people - that they could make promises to free political prisoners, open election of parliament, writing a constitution.

ELEANOR HALL: Clearly the regime is wary about protests. But if it is very small or indeed non-existent, is that the end in terms of the push for change?

MOHAMMAD AL-QAHTANI: Absolutely not. I think people knew what was going on. They knew their rights. And they have learned the lesson of what happened in other Middle Eastern countries.

It's not going to be all over soon if people do not show up.

ELEANOR HALL: That's Mohammad al-Qahtani, the head of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association. He was speaking there from the Saudi capital Riyadh.


  1. hope they dont succeed. Sure the Saudi govt has room for imporvement but American wannabes trying to make Saudi like America is sickening.
    Change is good, but I fear this change is Westernization....

  2. Sounds like the US government is between a rock and a hard place ... support freedom of protest and condemn violence against protestors (if this should occur) ... or remain silent against a violation of human rights because of the risk of destabilizing our already fragile economy. Decisions, decisions.

  3. I would be outside supporting this if I weren't scared of being shot by the Saudi police.

  4. to hear my own comments on the Day of Rage, see