Saudi activists fight through their fear


RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Mohammad Fahad Al-Qahtani is a busy man with a dangerous passion.

A human rights activist and relentless writer of letters and legal briefs, he challenges a kingdom that demands unquestioned authority. He slips videos onto the Internet and fires off missives to King Abdullah, calling for the freeing of political prisoners and the arrest of the king’s half brother and heir apparent.

He smiles at such audaciousness at a time when Saudi authorities are trying to contain calls for change encouraged by Arab rebellions, but turns somber when pondering the consequences. Hours earlier, Al-Qahtani was interrogated by security forces, clicking off his cellphone beforehand and handing his car keys to his lawyer in case he was imprisoned.

When the questioning was over, he drove across a city where religious police ensure that women are hidden by veils and the foreboding monolith of the Interior Ministry rises at the desert’s edge.

“They don’t like this and they keep coming after us,” said Al-Qahtani, with the air of a man accustomed to surveillance. “I’m afraid they’ll raid my home. The regime is very nervous. Since the ‘Arab Spring,’ the population is no longer passive. So what can the ruling family do? Suppress us or let the phenomenon grow?”

Even in a kingdom where police often materialize before a protest placard can be raised or a cry of dissent can be shouted, the uprisings across the region have inspired rumblings of discontent. Minority Shiite Muslims have taken to the streets and thousands of female university students have demonstrated against poor services and discrimination. Disillusioned and angry over lack of opportunities, Saudis have posted gripes in the social media about corruption and civil rights abuses.

Much of the dissatisfaction emanates from a ballooning young population irate because a country with vast oil wealth can’t provide livelihoods and affordable apartments. More than 25% of Saudis in their 20s are unemployed. Rising discontent over public corruption and ineptitude prompted the government last year to promise a $130-billion program to build affordable housing, create jobs and fund religious institutions.

“They can’t buy their way out anymore and they’re not willing to compromise,” said Al-Qahtani, an economics professor and president of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Assn. “The problem is an aging leadership and a second generation that’s really corrupt. The near future of this country is gloomy.”

Saudi Arabia “is redoubling its efforts to punish those who dare to demand democracy and human rights reform,” Human Rights Watch charges. The group said in its 2012 World Report that the kingdom has used “unflinching repression,” including travel bans, arbitrary arrests and torture, to silence critics.

The Sunni Muslim royal family claims strict security is necessary to counter Al Qaeda and prevent Iran from instigating sectarian trouble. King Abdullah sent Saudi troops into neighboring Bahrain last year to help crush Shiite protests against that country’s Sunni monarchy. Riyadh said Shiite-dominated Iran stirred those demonstrations and is plotting to ignite sectarian tensions near Saudi Arabia’s eastern oil fields.

The king remains popular even as his attempts at reforms have been limited by a fundamentalist Wahhabi Islam that makes free expression dangerous. One writer may face the death penalty for tweeting an imagined conversation with the prophet Muhammad: “I will not bow to you. I won’t kiss your hands.”

Gradual steps toward wider freedoms, including the appointment of moderates to some government ministries, have done little to appease civil rights advocates. They predict increased hostility toward reform when the king, who is in his 80s, dies. He is expected to be replaced by his half brother Prince Nayif ibn Abdulaziz, an ally of hard-line clerics and head of the Interior Ministry and its security networks that swiftly suppress protests, arrest accused witches and anyone deviating from the harsh interpretations of the Koran.

Saudi women are increasingly restive; they are not allowed to drive and must have the permission of a male guardian to travel abroad. Loosening the driving ban has gained wider support, including from members of the royal family, but, like many things in the kingdom, it is enforced by religious clerics and police.

“Prison, lashings and Interior Ministry phone threats ... drove the women driving movement underground again,” said the Saudiwoman’s blog in February. “If you are a Saudi woman reading this, I urge you to join the Right to Dignity initiative.”

The post states that women have other options, such as calling the traffic police, if joining the initiative “sounds too intimidating.”

Intimidation secures the kingdom’s equilibrium. In a recent interview, a newspaper editor complained about the regime’s reach and power; the following day his office called to ask that his name not be mentioned for fear of reprisal.

Al-Qahtani has no such reservations. A former talk show host, he believes, on his good days, that a high profile offers a degree of protection.

“I tell the interrogators: ‘I want you to send me to prison. I want to see what’s happening inside,’ ” he said, adding that such publicity could increase international pressure. “If I went to jail it would raise awareness. The authorities don’t want to do that. It might be too costly for them. Yet they have to do something. I really think they want to understand me. I have another interrogation tomorrow.”

Unease over the kingdom’s stability has seeped into the mechanism of power itself. Al-Qahtani’s organization has taken on the case of army Capt. Ghazi Al-Harbi, who was released recently after spending seven years in prison on allegations by the Interior Ministry that he belonged to a cadre of officers plotting a mutiny.

Al-Harbi, who said he was targeted to offer up other names in a wider purge, sat recently in a reception hall on the outskirts of Riyadh celebrating his new freedom with family and clansmen. The men-only crowd ate dates, sipped tea and listened to verse read by a tribal poet.

“I had no access to the evidence against me. I was in jail five years before I saw a judge,” he said. “They tied my hands behind my back and hanged me on a wall with my feet dangling. They beat me. They accused me loudly of being anti-Muslim and then they put me on a wing with Islamist extremists to incite them to kill me.”

He added: “They wanted me to confess but I did nothing wrong. What they did to me will remain for the rest of my life. I trust no one now. When I went to jail, my daughter was 2. She’s 9 now. My colleagues were all promoted to higher rank, but my career is ruined.”

Al-Qahtani listened and whispered: “What a crazy country.... What a broken system.”

Al-Harbi’s case, like those of political prisoners, activists and students are cataloged by Al-Qahtani’s civil rights organization, filed with Saudi courts and sent to the United Nations and international human rights groups. Occasionally, Al-Qahtani, who has degrees from U.S. universities, and members of his group stage hunger strikes and post Internet videos.

“The ultimate goal of the royal family is stability,” he said. “But the dynamic is picking up. Who would have ever imagined protests by female university students? There is no sense of engagement by the regime. For them, it’s either you have it all or you lose it all. They’re afraid.”

Al-Qahtani, who has four children, added: “I’m pushing for democracy in my country. I spend a lot of time with my children just in case [I go to jail]. I don’t want to feel guilty. I tell them what I’m doing is the right thing to do and if it means prison, then that’s the right cost. I think they understand.”

Amro Hassan of The Times’ Cairo bureau contributed to this report.