One Defection Does Not Make a Saudi Spring
by Patrik Stör*
On July 27, Prince Khalid bin Farhan bin Abdul Aziz al-Farhan al-Saud announced “with pride” his defection from the al-Saud regime in Riyadh. The prince explained he was leaving the royal family because of the corrupt and oppressive practices of the al-Saud.
Khalid’s defection may not represent a sea change in support for the regime from within the royal family. It does, nevertheless, highlight a growing movement for government reform emerging from inside Saudi Arabia, as well as clear discontent within some circles of the royal family directly benefitting from the Saudi rentier system.
The Defection of Khalid bin Farhan
According to statements made by the Prince since his defection, Saudi Arabia’s rulers will not respond to any advice to reform and are motivated only by “their interest to oppress inside the country and guard their interests outside it.”
Farhan has accused the royal family of treating the country and its citizens as their private property. He describes the regime as deviating not only from God’s, but also from society’s established rules, and oppressing respectable opposition figures while undermining the judiciary and the rule of law.
On August 12, 2013, the Prince elaborated on these allegations in a TV interview with the Russian-funded channel, RT Arabic. “The government is not guided by justice,” said Khalid, accusing the al-Saud family and its security services of assassinating anti-regime activists at home and abroad.
According to Farhan, even those who do not fear for their lives may face unfair trials:
There is no independent judiciary, as both police and the prosecutor’s office are accountable to the Interior Ministry. This ministry’s officials investigate ‘crimes’ (they call them crimes), related to freedom of speech. So they fabricate evidence, don’t allow people to have attorneys. Even if a court rules to release such a ‘criminal’, the Ministry of Interior keeps him in prison, even though there is a court order to release him.
This political repression has included various actions against activists and opposition groups.
In July 2013, Raif Badawi, blogger and founder of the Free Saudi Liberals, was sentenced to 7 years and 600 lashes for “insulting Islam” and violating Saudi Arabia’s anti-cybercrime law. The Free Saudi Liberals is a Saudi Internet forum that discusses the role of religion and features articles critical of senior religious figures such as the Grand Mufti.
A month earlier, seven Saudi Facebook users were sentenced to prison for inciting protests, illegal gatherings, and breaking allegiance with the King. On June 17, 2013, human rights activist, Mikhlif al-Shammari, was sentenced to 5 years for “sowing discord.”
Farhan stated that it was a “bitter personal experience” to witness such oppression, which made him aware of the tyranny and power the regime exerts on ordinary Saudis.
According to mujtahid, Crown Prince Salman tried to intervene in the family business of Farhan al-Farhan, Khalid’s father, and prevented him and his family from traveling abroad.
The negative collateral impact of this dispute inspired a fighting spirit in Farhan al-Farhan’s children. Khalid and one of his sisters defied the ban and traveled abroad. Threats from Salman forced Khalid’s sister return. Khalid, however, reportedly rejected a bribe to also return to the country, and remained outside Saudi Arabia.
Popular Efforts at Reforming the Saudi Regime
Upon defecting, Khalid declared his solidarity with the reform movements and opposition groups that have emerged inside and outside Saudi Arabia.
In his RT Arabic interview, Khalid identified young people, who are looking for the same rights as their counterparts in other countries around the world, as the most important group pushing for reform within Saudi Arabia’s current political scene.
Khalid also confirmed his connection to Sa’ad al Faqih, a Saudi commoner forced into exile in the 1990s, who leads the Islamic Reform in Arabia (MIRA) from London. While he highlighted the group in his original defection statement, Khalid also denied being a member of Faqih’s movement.
MIRA advocates “power sharing, accountability, transparency and freedom of expression,” and the eventual collapse of the al-Saud regime. According to Faqih, MIRA constitutes the “media arm”1 of the Saudi Sunni reform movement.
Faqih is a veteran of the Sahwa movement of the early 1990s; the movement is composed of a group of Islamist reformers who mix Wahhabi social conservatism with Muslim Brotherhood political theory.
The Sahwa movement confronted the Saudi state after the deployment of American troops to the Arabian Peninsula during the Kuwait crisis and called for political reforms that were congruent with the group’s interpretation of Islam.
Faqih helped produce the Letter of Demand and the Memorandum of Advice, two core documents in the history of Islamist critique of the al-Saud regime. Both documents denounced rampant corruption, nepotism and lack of the rule of law inside the Kingdom while proposing various counter-measures, such as the establishment of an independent consultative council and review of the compatibility of all laws with sharia law.
In 1993, Faqih was one of the founding members of the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights (CDLR), the first organization in the Kingdom whose primary purpose was to criticize the politics of the al-Saud regime. The Committee supported all sharia-guaranteed laws for the Saudi people, including the right to freedom of speech.
In response to his activities, the regime removed Faqih from his post as professor of medicine at King Saud University in Riyadh. He was imprisoned and upon his release fled to London establishing an international branch for the CDLR in April 1994.
Because of disagreements with his co-activists over questions of “policy and methodology,”2 Faqih left the CDLR and established MIRA in 1996.
Faqih is an expert in using non-government controlled media to mobilize the masses. He has distributed tapes, sent thousands of faxes, started his own small satellite channel, al-Islah, while also pioneering the use of the Internet to spread his message back to the Arabian Peninsula.
In 2003, his efforts helped spark street protests in Riyadh and Jeddah, which ended with the arrest of 350 protestors. In the run up to Saudi’s day of rage in March 2011, Faqih provided advice on how to demonstrate and proposed possible locations for public protests via his TV channel.
Despite these various activities, it remains hard to measure the real impact of al-Faqih’s organization inside Saudi Arabia. For example, the Saudi day of rage, which was inspired by the Arab Spring, did not take place on its scheduled date.
Eman al-Najfan, a Saudi blogger, considers interference by exile opposition groups like MIRA as hijacking domestic, grassroots movements for reform in the country, and does not see popular support for these organizations inside Saudi Arabia.
The Red Prince – Reforming the Monarchy
Khalid’s defection is not the first time the al-Saud family has faced dissent from within its ranks.
Prince Talal, one of the most well-known royal rebels, also hailed from the family’s innermost circle.
During the late 1950s and early 1960s, a political power struggle smoldered inside the royal family. At the time, King Saud and Crown Prince Faisal were in fierce competition for allies who would support their respective ambitions for political power.
King Saud, who was criticized for his extravagant lifestyle and lack of diplomatic skills, formed a coalition with several liberal princes under the leadership of his half-brother Talal.
That pact, however, lasted less than a year due to growing antagonism between the conservative King Saud and liberal Talal. Talal’s push for a constitutional monarchy made him especially unbearable to the king and many other senior princes.
In 1961, soon after being dismissed from the Ministry of Finance and National Economy, Talal went into exile in Beirut, where he formed an opposition group called the “Free Princes.” His two half-brothers Badr and Fawwaz joined the group and backed the idea of constitutional monarchy and reform in Saudi Arabia.
It was also at this point that Talal declared himself to be a socialist, an announcement that earned him the nickname the Red Prince.
During the following two years, Talal moved between Beirut and Cairo while voicing his support for Egyptian president Gamal Abd al Nasser. At the time, Saudi Arabia and Egypt were fighting a proxy-war in Yemen and the Egyptian President was calling for a coup d’état in Riyadh.
To help generate support for his cause, Talal regularly addressed his fellow countrymen through the Egyptian radio station “Voice of the Arabs.” His calls for regime change in Saudi Arabia did not, however, gain traction – at the time, ideas about constitutional monarchy, socialism, and nationalism did not resonate within the royal family or at the grassroots level.
In August 1962, the Red Prince was stripped of his Saudi citizenship, and his assets were frozen. His whole family, including his Armenian mother, urged him to stop his efforts against the regime.
In March 1964, King Saud abdicated due to pressure from several factions of the family and important religious scholars. Upon coming to power, King Faisal gave members of the Free Princes the opportunity to return to the Kingdom as long as they abstained from political activity.
Talal took Faisal up on the offer and returned to Saudi Arabia where he made a successful career in real estate using his family connections (known as wasta in Arabic).
Nevertheless, Talal remained a dissenting force within the royal family. Despite his promise to refrain from political activism, the Red Prince returned to the public sphere in the late 1990s.
Talal’s resuscitated political career came as a result of his good relations with King Abdallah, the current head of the Saudi government. While Talal has earned Abdallah’s trust and currently functions as one of his advisors, over the last few years, he has made a number of controversial statements on the Kingdom’s future.
Among Talal’s latest notable statements was his call in 2007 for parliamentary elections to break the power of a group of Saudi princes, “which is not only blocking reform, but is also trying to eliminate others and take everything in its hands.”
Talal’s comments about the “group of Saudi princes” referred to the Sudayri Seven, the powerful coalition of seven brothers born to a mother from the Sudayri tribe.
Talal has accused the Sudayri brothers, who are not considered to be reform-friendly, of trying to occupy all important positions in the state.
Late crown Princes Sultan and Naif belonged to this influential faction of the royal family. In 2009, Talal publicly challenged Prince Naif’s appointment as Deputy Prime Minister.
Two years later, in 2011, the Red Prince resigned from the Allegiance Council, the family committee that chooses the crown prince, shortly after the Council named then-Interior Minister Naif heir to the throne following Sultan’s death.
In February 2011, the Red Prince caused a stir when he told the BBC that “unless the problems facing Saudi Arabia are solved, what happened and is still happening in some Arab countries, including Bahrain, could spread to Saudi Arabia, even worse.”
Throughout the Arab Spring, Talal has continued repeating demands for a constitutional monarchy, the empowerment of the consultative council, and free and fair parliamentary elections.
While such statements are an obvious threat to family unity and appear to destabilize the country’s absolute monarchy, they may in fact have a more positive effect on the al-Saud’s image.
Saudi Arabia has been facing significant economic and social problems. Over the last decade, there have been calls for political change within the country, from the grassroots. Satellite channels, websites and social media have provided multiple outlets for opposition activists to voice and spread their opinions throughout society.
Talal’s ability to voice reformist demands may help the al-Saud dynasty appear as tolerant of its critics. His activities allow the regime to highlight the plurality of opinions within the al-Saud family, underscore the supposed struggle for reform in a complex society, and make the family seem open-minded.
Conclusion: Implications for the Saudi regime
The question on everyone’s mind is whether Khalid’s defection poses an immediate danger to the Saudi regime, particularly if news of this development is spread throughout the country by MIRA and social media?
Western and Arab media have already provided their particular answer to this question by hardly covering the prince’s defection.
In contrast to Talal, who headed a government ministry before his defection, Khalid bin Farhan and his family are not big players in Saudi politics.
Khalid has never been more than a simple supernumerary in the country’s political scene. Khalid’s father once served the king as an envoy to Germany, but no other members of his family have held any important political positions.
That does not, however, render Khalid’s defection meaningless. Even if it may not have any immediate impact on politics inside the Kingdom, when Khalid speaks of “deep seated and real problems” that transcend purely economic questions he taps into deep resentment with the regime, which may eventually threaten its future power.
Earlier this year, Haroon Ahmed, an official at the Saudi Consulate General in Houston, Texas, also defected. Haroon published several YouTube clips giving similar reasons as Khalid for his decision to leave the Saudi regime. Though Haroon is not a member of the Saudi royal family, he was a beneficiary of its rentier system, enjoying a secure job at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The two defections are a clear sign that even those with wasta and access to rents are affected by what appears, to many citizens, as systematic disregard by the royal family for the interests of Saudi citizens.
The steps taken by the Saudi regime to prevent the Arab Spring from spilling over into the Kingdom were primarily aimed at addressing monetary discontent and depicting the al-Saud as custodians of prosperity.
Economic hardship is a considerable issue inside Saudi Arabia, as demonstrated by extensive Twitter discussions on the topic. On its own, however, low salaries and unemployment are not sufficient explanations for the rising number of critical voices inside the Kingdom.
In the long term, subsidies and rising salaries will hardly be enough to buy off the desire for fair and equal treatment among the Saudi population. Compared to the 1960s when Talal was advocating for reform, concepts like constitutional monarchy and democracy are not totally alien to many Saudis.
Indeed, it is dignity, justice, and human rights that have been the slogans of the country’s reform movement. A significant percentage of all (forbidden) demonstrations in Saudi Arabia have called for the release of unjustifiably imprisoned persons. The popularity of social media, especially Twitter, also reflects a popular desire for freedom of speech and political discussion in the country.
While this does not mean the al-Saud regime is on the brink of losing control of the country, it is a clear indication that cries for reform and change in the Arabian Peninsula, whether from liberal or conservative elements, will get louder. A thorough re-structuring of state-society relation seems, at this point, to be inevitable for the Kingdom.
*Patrik Stör holds a Master’s degree in Political Science from Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg (FAU) and is currently employed at the Central Office for International Affairs at FAU.
1 Fandy, Mamoun (1999): CyberResistance: Saudi Opposition between Localization and Globalization, in: Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 41, p. 124-147, p. 138.
2 ibidem, p. 137.