On Thursday Jumada Alawal 13th, 1425AH, corresponding to July 1st, 2004, Almanar Satellite Channel in Lebanon hosted Jafar Alshayeb, a human rights activist, in “Lebanon This Morning” program; moderated by Mohammad Sheri to discuss the significant transformations and current issues in Saudi Arabia. Alshayeb is one of the most prominent figures in the Saudi reformative trend, and well-known locally and internationally; he has an effective social and political role within the Saudi society.
There are almost daily security clashes in Saudi Arabia with terrorist groups which results in imposing many security procedures. In your point of view, is there a space left for dialogue in Saudi Arabia?
These recent developments in Saudi Arabia are continuing, escalating and spreading in various places. Therefore, the security procedures, which are imposed by the State, can reduce different terroristic operations. However, those procedures can not end them up because they require to be dealt with comprehensively. Actually, these developments call for national dialogue which must be characterized with openness, frankness and transparency to make citizens participate in looking for the best solutions to these problems. It is noticed how national dialogue resulted in positive outcomes within its three conferences which were held in Riyadh, Makkah and Madinah despite all comments that believe in their effectiveness.
These conferences laid perfect grounds for dialogue among different Saudi social groups and various sects to discuss important issues in the State like extremism and women issues, and the next conferences, which will be held in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, is going to deal with youth issues and contemporary crises that the Kingdom is going through.
Theoretically, that sound sense, but, practically, the priority is for the security field to combat what is currently called “Terrorism” in Saudi Arabia. How much space is there for those conferences and for continuing effective dialogue?
We must not depend only on the security approach without considering other different options. It is obvious that security procedures are very necessary to protect the State’s establishments and the society whether citizens or residents, but violence and terrorism are not new phenomena and they have a history and a background which need to be studied and dealt with in order to address the problem comprehensively; and not only superficially. The police can arrest terrorists and wanted individuals, and restrain their activities but how we can guarantee that other young terrorists won’t come up and practice terrorism.
Is the call for reform in Saudi Arabia resulted from the project of combating terrorism and the American call for reform?
Anyone conducts a research about Saudi issues, and studies the political status in Saudi Arabia, can mark the national movement. Moreover, reform demands, which is not recent, is not a response to the American agenda or to the prevailing violence and terrorism in Saudi Arabia. Reform is a trend and an active movement that occurred in the fifties but observers started to focus on the situation in Saudi Arabia just after the events of September eleventh which made them think that reform movements has just started after those events. What distinguishes this movement is that it was in constant connection with Saudi political leaderships through several means and it expressed itself and called for its demands through presenting petitions as well as direct meetings.
You mentioned that three meetings were already held and a forth one will be conducted soon, is there a mechanism for these Saudi national dialogue meetings or they are unorganized and conducted through traditional approaches?
National dialogue was a normal interaction between the reformists’ demands and decisions makers and political leaderships in Saudi Arabia because reformists had presented a petition to the Crown Prince entitled “Vision for the Present and Future of Our Nation”. One of the most significant items that were included in the petition was the call for holding a national conference that discusses urgent national issues.
After that, the national dialogue draft in Saudi Arabia was approved and the first meeting was held a year ago in Riyadh. All representatives of different sects and intellectual orientations were equally present in the meeting, and they addressed prominent
Saudi issues with frankness and transparency. Obviously, there are some observations like the recommendations which resulted from those meetings and still not obligatory and not executed such as the necessity of holding elections on the Consultative Council, and the recognition of various sects and intellectual orientations that resulted from the second meeting.
As you mentioned previously, there is a wide variety of Islamic sects and trends within the sects themselves; like the moderate Islamic trends, Salafist and strict Salafist trends, as well as secular and liberal trends. Is there a common grounds for these sects and trends on which they can come together to accomplish reform?
It is normal to have all those trends and formations in the Saudi society; however, all political leadership approved the draft of reformation, and King Fahad, in his speech to the Shura Council last year, metioned a significant document over reformation in various fields. Moreover, the Crown Prince approved all reformative projects which were presented to him in his meeting with reform elites in Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, there are some intellectual and political orientations in the Saudi society that do not approve reformation and they believe that it is the result of external pressures.
These orientations have their effective role in the society whether historically or institutionally.
It is absolutely true but if we are looking for social and political stability in the kingdom, we must consider pursuing reform. It is clear that there are many experiences and we can observe the experience of Bahrain as an example. In this state, there was a severe disagreement between the government and the opposition and the situation was adjusted through enforcing a set of reformative procedures. Therefore, the opposition, that used to adopt violent approaches, is currently referring to more civilized and peaceful approaches to express their viewpoints. All of that made Bahrain more stable politically and socially, and this is exactly what Saudi Arabia needs.
What are the priorities of reformation, are they social, political or educational priorities, or is it a package includes all of them?
The Kingdom went through huge developments during the last decades due to the economical prosperity and huge financial returns; consequently, new influential factors entered the society that resulted in many developments. Unfortunately, no political development had occurred which caused a kind of political suppression and frustration. Saudi Arabia has one dominant political power that has the potential of eliminating other powers which created a dilemma. It is necessary to offer other social components the opportunity to express themselves and confirm their presence appropriately in the political field.
Is the response to the call for reform within the Saudi national dialogue effective in a way that pushes this project forward or it is just introductory?
There are not any previous political reform experiences in Saudi Arabia; therefore, there are different proposals and developments as well as religious and political powers in Saudi Arabia that do not believe in reform as a solution for this dilemma. The Kingdom had made some partial resolutions which are not within a comprehensive set of reforms as it was hoped. It is important to consider the necessity of applying political developments on the State’s establishments in order to keep pace with ongoing international developments.
Is the vision of political leaderships unified and concerted towards reform projects in Saudi Arabia?
Reformists were used to present proposals that include visions and reformative projects to officials and political leaderships to be discussed. I think that political systems vary in considering the importance and mechanisms of reform. The Saudi society contains different components, and still follows traditional approaches, and its political administration’s mechanisms differ from other societies. Moreover, it includes various political parties which naturally result in diverse viewpoints in the way of addressing problems, but that does not prevent them from reaching a common ground for reform.
Is there a project for Shiites in Saudi Arabia that separated from the common Saudi reform project or are they considered part of the Saudi society?
Shiite citizens are part of the Saudi society. As I mentioned before, there are seven Islamic sects and different regions in the Kingdom. King AbdulAziz was wise in ruling the state; he offered each sect and each region a kind of regional and religious freedom including the Eastern Province which contains Qatif and Alahssa, and, in returns, he demanded political allegiance.
This agreement was broken through the years because of various political developments. One power became the dominant and denied other existing entities which affected Saudi Shiites more than other groups of the society. Saudi Shiite citizens categorize their problem as a national one; which does not pertain a specific group. They encourage discarding discrimination and alienation and pursue promoting national unity through their writings, contributions as well as their political stands during the crises that the Kingdom went through. One of the most distinctive examples for the Shiite citizens’ role is the document that they presented it to the Crown Prince entitled “Partners in One Nation”. This document showed their problems and proposals for addressing them, stressed on the necessity of promoting national unity, and it was signed by 450 Shiite figures from different Saudi regions.
How did the Saudi society and the government deal with this document?
In this stage, the Shiite discourse is an open national discourse with different powers to address the problems that Shiites suffered for years. Therefore, there are many books and participations by Shiites in Saudi cultural forums through various media outlets to call for the necessity of openness as well as freedom of expression.
Intellectuals of other sects should contribute in address this dilemma to prevent a national crisis. However, their responses may vary between moderate trends who may promote this moderate and balanced national discourse, and extreme trends who may not only disagree with Shiites, other Sunni sects and liberal trends, but even express them as infidels. It is not expected from these extreme trends to be flexible and cooperative unless the Kingdom enforced legal procedures to restrain abuse and disputes. It is necessary to have a system and legal acts that protects people’s beliefs and intellectual freedoms.
Do you think that the march of reform in Saudi Arabia would take a long time to achieve any development?
There are natural developments and a pressing need for reform in the society. It is obvious that these developments and reforms are so slow which causes many social problems. Reform needs political will to overstep problems; for example, television, educating girls and studying some subjects like English and Geography were all forbidden and society resented them, but there was a political will which did not make any responses and got over those issues which became now marginal.
After the attacks of September eleventh, there was a kind of relative freedom for conducting national dialogue and combating terrorism, but after closing this file, the need for conducting reforms will be stopped because there are no external or internal pressures, what do think?
I hope not. Actually what involved us in this dilemma and cost us a lot is the tardiness in setting reforms. If more efforts were dedicated for reform and acceptance for diversity, the Saudi society would not be in a dead end as it is now.
There are who state that Saudi Arabia is targeted by the United States because it includes high oil wealth and reservations, is there any worries over national unity from the next American projects?
I actually doubt that for several reasons. One of them is that the American proposals are meant to partially press on Saudi Arabia, and there are no serious drafts in this regard. Another one is that different effective powers in the Saudi society and officials highly stress on the importance of promoting national unity because it leads to the best for the whole nation.