Global Opinions

It’s time for democratic change in Saudi Arabia

(Ann Kiernan for The Washington Post)

Madawi Al-Rasheed is co-founder and spokesperson for the National Assembly Party (NAAS), and is a visiting professor at the London School of Economics. Abdullah Alaoudh is also co-founder of NAAS, and is the director of research for the Gulf Region at Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN).

On Wednesday, as Saudi Arabia celebrated its National Day with regime propaganda extolling 90 years of prosperity and security, a group of exiles based in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada and elsewhere announced the formation of the National Assembly Party (NAAS), a party rooted in democratic principles seeking to restore basic rights for Saudi society, such as freedom of speech, accountability, elections and respect for international law.

We consider it a matter of urgency to break the silence over the Saudi regime’s ongoing domestic repression and violation of international norms.

Two years after Jamal Khashoggi’s brutal killing, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman continues to rule by the sword. From the detention of activists, feminists and intellectuals in Saudi Arabia and the persecution of critics abroad, to the devastating five-year-old Saudi war in Yemen, the regime keeps getting away with murder. Meanwhile, a weakened and fearful Saudi civil society remains deprived of the right to challenge oppression by peaceful means, and the complacency and complicity of some international actors has emboldened MBS.

That’s why we have gone public with our party and our declaration of principles, knowing that the regime will also target us abroad and terrorize our families at home. But we, as part of the larger Saudi community in exile, vow to do everything in our power to prevent the country from sliding into unrest and violence while triggering more regional wars.

We believe that stability is only achieved through democracy and rule of law. We want to secure justice for each person, without discrimination, to ensure equality among citizens — and to set up an independent, fair judiciary that refers to a constitution of a public consensus.

Our party consists of a diverse group from various regions, tribes, sects and intellectual currents. The goal of the NAAS party is to represent the Saudi people, and we open our arms to all Saudi citizens, including business leaders and members of the royal family, to work together to rescue Saudi society from the brink of collapse.

The party does not expect democracy to collide with Saudi Arabia’s Islamic tradition. Many Muslim countries have successfully transitioned toward democracy. In fact, the party considers religious communities part of a robust civil society. Most urgent in Saudi Arabia is to free religion from the grip of the state — always used by the regime in domestic and foreign policy as a God-sent umbrella to cover up the worst violations of human rights, and to justify state-sponsored violence and wrongdoing.

With a royal power struggle looming within the House of Saud after the death of King Salman, NAAS wants to shield Saudi society from political instability and unrest. As MBS is yet to become king and receive the oath of allegiance from a coterie of marginalized and humiliated royalty — thus shattering the myth about royal consensus — our party has one clear answer to avoid a potential leadership crisis: the people, (or, in Arabic, the naas).

NAAS addresses the power vacuum in society under MBS. The world has watched in horror his excesses but has failed to stage an appropriate response. Even the Saudi aggression in Yemen is still far from being halted as the main patrons of the regime, the United States and Britain, choose not to pressure him to end this war that has killed thousands of Yemenis and destroyed an already-impoverished country, causing the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.

For NAAS, the first concern is to allow Saudis inside the country to articulate their vision to become free citizens with basic political and civil rights. The goal is to raise consciousness and provide alternative models of activism. Secondly, the party wants to engage with the international community and global civil society to transform Saudi Arabia into a respected participant rather than a rogue state — tolerated only for its wealth and potential as a weapon importer and destination for global capital investment.

For a very long time, the world has tolerated dictators in order to achieve what some see as “stability.” However, authoritarian rogue figures such as MBS have proven to be great sources of instability at home and abroad. It is in the interest of both Saudis and the international community to support NAAS and work with us to achieve a stable democratic system that saves the country from imminent implosion from within, because the consequences will be devastating for all.

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