Saudi Arabia: ‘Dear King Salman, why I’m terrified about our Saudi future,’ by a loyal subject


Dear King Salman,

As a loyal subject of the Al Saud royal family, I congratulate you on your ascension to the throne. I join both fellow Saudis and world leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama, who will be here in Riyadh on Tuesday, in expressing my condolences for the recent death of King Abdullah and sending good wishes to you, our new king. At the same time, I share my fellow subjects’ dread of the future. When King Abdullah came into power a decade ago, people across the kingdom went out into the streets to express their happiness. His reputation for generosity and forgiveness filled Saudis with hope. Unfortunately, this is not likely to be the situation in your case. I sincerely hope you prove us all wrong. But I fear that our country, already so far behind the rest of the world in many ways, will stagnate under your watch.

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Photo: Politico 2015

Why? Let us begin with your appointment of Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef as second in line for the throne, after the 69-year-old Crown Prince Muqrin bin Abdul-Aziz. Since King Abdullah’s health began to fail in 2010, Bin Nayef, now a relatively young 55, has grown in power. And in his capacity as minister of interior, which gives him control of Saudi Arabia’s law enforcement, courts and prisons, he has given us a glimpse of a future kingdom under his rule: a police state reminiscent of Bashar Assad’s Syria and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The more that King Abdullah’s health declined and the more frequent his treatments abroad became, the higher the number of people being threatened and imprisoned by the Ministry of Interior grew.

Initially, the threats, while harsh and unwarranted, were against activists who were truly outspoken in their demands for political rights and freedoms. In 2012, for instance, Mohammed Al Bajadi was tried and sentenced in a secret court on charges of disobedience of the rulers, speaking to foreign media, demonstrating and owning prohibited books on democracy. In 2013, Mohammed Al Qahtani was sentenced to 10 years in prison for documenting political prisoners and calling for a constitutional monarchy. Mikhlif Al Shammari was sentenced in the same year, for promoting anti-sectarianism. Raif Badawi established a web forum called The Saudi Liberal Network that facilitated the discussion and criticism of the radical Islam taught in Saudi schools. In return, he was sentenced last year to 10 years in prison and a thousand lashes. His lawyer, Abulkhair, was sentenced to 15 years for establishing an independent human rights organization. The list goes on and on.

As bad as that sounds, in recent years, the charges have become more extreme and the targets more frequent. By 2014, the Ministry of Interior’s patience had become so thin that a progressive Harvard-educated lawyer, Bandar Al Nogaithan, was tried as a terrorist and sentenced to five years merely for tweets critical of the judicial system and for retweeting a cartoon depicting a judge checking his cellphone while cobwebs grew around his client. Today, by human rights groups’ estimates, there are some 30,000 political detainees in Saudi Arabia. Many are in prison indefinitely without charge or trial. Some are secretly tortured and others publicly flogged. I cringe when the global community considers my country’s record comparable to the Islamic State’s, with our shared floggings and grotesque beheadings.

Perhaps the most absurd example of how extreme life under Bin Nayef will be is his reaction to the campaign for Saudi women to be able to drive. Unlike every other country on the planet, Saudi Arabia does not issue licenses to women. For the past three decades, Saudi women who defied the ban were stopped by the police and detained for a few hours. A year ago, the government’s reaction escalated to indefinitely impounding cars driven by women. Currently, Bin Nayef’s response is to try women who drive as terrorists. Yes, the Saudi kingdom equates operating a motor vehicle—for women—to acts of extreme intimidation and violence. Last November, two Saudi women, Loujain Al Hathloul and Maysa Al Amoudi, peacefully attempted to draw attention to the absurdity of the driving ban by driving their cars from the United Arab Emirates, a similarly tribal and Islamic country, to the Saudi border. There, upon the orders of Bin Nayef, their passports were confiscated, and they were arrested and transferred to Saudi Arabia’s Specialized Criminal Court, which handles terrorism cases. They are in prison while their lawyers appeal the transfer.

One of the first orders King Abdullah issued when he took power was the pardon and release of Saudi Arabia’s most prominent political prisoners and thousands of others. He pushed women’s rights forward by appointing females to the Shura Council, which drafts laws and advises the king, and opening employment opportunities. Almost half a million women have rushed to take advantage of his 2011 decree allowing women to work as cashiers and store clerks. In the days after King Abdullah passed away, a widely shared sentiment on social media has been that he came into power too late and left too early, and that his failing health prevented him from fully strong-arming his vision into reality.

King Salman, as governor of Riyadh, you were famous for your punctuality, long work hours and accessibility. Please do not allow your conservatism to obfuscate our dreams of a better and brighter future for our kingdom. I beseech you in good faith to carry the torch of King Abdullah’s reforms by pardoning political detainees and lifting the ban on women driving. How are we, dear king, supposed to root out Islamic extremism from within our country when our own government already terrorizes and imprisons its own people? How can we move forward into the 21st century when I have to resort to using a pseudonym just to ask you to address these issues, for fear of retribution for speaking out?

The first step toward truly reforming Saudi society would be replacing Prince Bin Nayef. There is no shortage of other princes to choose from. Even within your household, your son Sultan has shown that he has the potential to be a wise and balanced leader. A prince who instead aspires to tyranny will only lead the Saudi people to the same desperation that led to the toppling of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Not only for the Saudi people’s sake but also for the continuity of the monarchy, these wannabe dictators have to be swept aside.

Even though we have no say or representation in the absolute monarchy that rules our country, the majority of the Saudi people, by all accounts, remain loyal to the monarchy and do not want to see it end. We are grateful to the unifiers of this great land. However, we are unable to wait much longer for political participation and freedoms. We want our country to honor the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights and to grant the Saudi people a constitution and elected parliament.

King Salman, will you be the one to help us achieve such progress? We know that within the existing monarchy, there are some who have aspired to such a constitutional monarchy. As far back as the 1950s, four of your half-brothers and a cousin formed the Free Princes Movement. They had the farsightedness to call for equality for women, a constitution and an elected parliament. Yet all but one of them were exiled by the monarchy and allowed back into the country only after they apologized.

Will you be the one who cements our gratitude by carrying out what your half-brothers proposed half a century ago? One of our most weathered political activists, Mohammad Saeed Tayeb, tells of a phone call he says he received from you in 2012. He claims that you informed him of your support for a constitutional monarchy. I certainly hope that is true. Otherwise, Saudi Arabia’s next and most educated generation—the 60 percent of the population under the age of 21—are unlikely to ask as nicely or wait as patiently as their parents and grandparents did.

This article was written by a Saudi writer in Riyadh whose identity is kept anonymous to protect the writer’s security.

This article was originally published by on January 26, 2015 and is available here: Why I’m terrified about our Saudi future.