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Ambivalent Arabia

A democratic tide seems to be sweeping across the Arab world. Even the traditional Arab monarchies and Emirates are changing in its wake. Kuwait now allows women to vote, Qatar has embraced an ambitious reform program, Bahrain has shown great tolerance of mass demonstrations, and the U.A.E. is allowing something like a free press. But Saudi Arabia continues to be deeply wary of any sort of change, and thus remains a huge and seemingly immovable obstacle to region-wide reform.

Although the Saudi ruling family, the al-Saud, is under enormous pressure to follow the example of its neighbors, internal resistance to doing so remains very strong. So the al-Saud have become Janus-faced: looking in one direction, the royal family encourages democratic reformers to speak out; looking in the opposite direction, it jails them when they do.

On May 15, in a closed trial without legal representation for the accused, three leading reformers – Ali Al Dumaini, a well-known journalist and poet, and university professors Abdullah Al Hamid and Matruk al Falih – were condemned and sentenced to prison terms ranging from six to nine years. Their crime was to call for a constitutional monarchy. The official verdict states that they threatened national unity, challenged those in authority, and incited public opinion against the state while using “foreign,” that is, Western, terminology.

Not long after the September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, these liberal reformers joined with 160 other professionals to write and sign a petition to Crown Prince Abdullah asking for reforms. The petition called for the monarchy to work within constitutionally prescribed limits, and for an independent judiciary.