Being a Saudi political activist means learning to do jail time

By Faiza Saleh Ambah, Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 30, 2004


Mohammad Saeed Tayeb is part of a core group of democratic reformers who the Saudi Arabian government detained last month.

 In the days following Mohammad Saeed Tayeb's release this month from a Saudi jail for political activism, the gate to his two-story house and his front door were left open.

It was a small but symbolic act.

Shortly after noon prayers men in long white Saudi thobes and headdresses trickle into the living room, greeting Mr. Tayeb with kisses and hugs. "Welcome back, father of Shaimaa [his eldest daughter]. Thank God for your safe return." Two Filipino waiters walk around the long rectangular room carrying trays filled with steaming glasses of red and green tea and Arabic coffee.

Tayeb's cellphone continuously interrupts the buzz of conversation. He fields calls from the BBC and Radio Sawa, the American-sponsored station. "We welcome you as a pleasant addition to the region's media," Tayeb tells the Sawa correspondent. "But I'm sorry, I'm not at liberty to speak to the press. I've been asked not to. Yes, you can say I said that."

The arrest of Tayeb along with about a dozen other pro-democracy activists last month has stalled the reform movement in Saudi Arabia, the most serious in the country's recent history. Most activists have been released on condition they stop organizing public events and don't talk to the press. Three who refuse to cooperate without a lawyer are still in detention.

At an age when most men are thinking about retirement, Tayeb is a central figure in a group of some 50 political activists. The group includes liberals from the Red Sea coast city of Jeddah, Islamists from the capital Riyadh, and Shiites from the Eastern province. They have been working together for the first time, gathering signatures for petitions asking for a constitution, economic and political accountability from the royal family and government, and more rights for women.

"Under the guidance of Mohammad Saeed Tayeb, Matrouk al-Faleh and Abdullah al-Hamid [Al Faleh and Al Hamid are still being detained], Saudi reformists were more active in the past three years than in the previous four decades," says Saudi writer and reformist Ahmad Adnan. The reason, says Mr. Adnan, is a political environment altered by the Sept. 11 attacks, terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia, the US-led war in neighboring Iraq, and calls for reform by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah.

Over the past year, the reformists have gathered more than 850 signatures in several petitions calling for reforms, talked openly in newspapers and on TV satellite channels about the urgent need for change in the kingdom, and held a public meeting in Riyadh, the first of its kind.

But the reform-minded Prince Abdullah has been silent since the arrests March 16, leading many to suspect that his powerful half-brothers, Interior Minister Prince Nayef and Defense Minister Prince Sultan, engineered the arrests without his approval.

Though political gatherings are banned in Saudi Arabia, the group of 50 core activists flew in to Riyadh from various parts of the country last month and held a two-hour meeting in a hotel restaurant. In the meeting, chaired by Tayeb, they discussed their common goals and agreed to meet again the following month.

"Many of these guys were meeting each other for the first time," says lawyer Essam Basrawi, who was present. "But we had to leave quickly because the security forces gathered outside once they heard about the meeting," he says.

The authorities were angered by the public show of defiance after Prince Nayef had warned the leading activists, during a meeting in his office in December, against public demands for reform. In that meeting Prince Nayef criticized Tayeb for inviting the American consul in Jeddah, Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, to several of his Tuesday evening salons, says Mr. Basrawi.

Source : The Christian Science Monitor