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Last Updated: Thursday, 10 February, 2005, 11:26 GMT
Profile: Saudi political opposition
By Gerald Butt
Middle East analyst

Saudi ant-monarchy protester being arrested in Riyadh
All attempts at public protest have been crushed
The ban on political parties and strict control of the media mean that no formal opposition to the government and/or the royal family is allowed - even though critical voices can be heard in private.

All formal political opposition has been organised and coordinated from outside the country.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, a number of Saudi opposition groups were based in the Lebanese capital, Beirut.

Most of the Saudis involved in this movement espoused Arab nationalist causes - which dominated political life in the region in those days.

But in the years after the catastrophic defeat of the Arabs in the 1967 war with Israel and the death in 1970 of President Jamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt, the leading proponent of pan-Arab nationalism, the Beirut-based Saudi opposition faded away.

London

Not until the 1990s did the Saudi political opposition voice in exile begin to be heard again, this time from London.

Mohammed al-Masari, a physicist who fled from the kingdom in 1994, was a leading figure, along with Saad al-Faqih, in the Committee for Defence of Legitimate Rights.

Using fax machines as their main means of disseminating news, the group released statements critical of the Saudi royal family, alleging corruption and abuse of privileges on the part of princes.

The campaign was effective enough to draw the wrath of the Saudi royal family, which made it clear to the British government that lucrative defence contracts and other commercial deals would be in jeopardy if Mr Masari was not silenced.

The British authorities attempted to have him deported, alleging that he was making statements with the intent of instigating violence.

In the end, Mr Masari won a legal battle to be allowed to stay in Britain. But soon after that he faded from public prominence.

But as his star was waning, he fell out with Mr Faqih over the tone being adopted by the Committee for Defence of Legitimate Rights, with Mr Faqih arguing that the Saudi opposition should operate only within the strict boundaries of UK law.

Mr Faqih - a physician by training - now runs the London-based Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia.

By means of his website he continues to call for political reform in the kingdom and latterly the removal of the Saudi monarchy.

Arrests

The Saudi authorities insist that the CDLR and MIRA, along with other groups claiming to speak in the name of the exiled Saudi opposition, have no following and influence within the kingdom.

It is wrong, therefore, the authorities argue, to give them the label "opposition".

Leading dissident Mohammed al-Masari
Mohammed al-Masari has faded from prominence
There is little doubt that there is a tendency in the Western media to exaggerate the importance of groups operating out of London and elsewhere.

Nevertheless, calls made by Mr Faqih for demonstrations in Saudi cities to press for political reforms have resulted in small, short-lived street protests.

The last occasion in December, when the protests were meant to topple the Saudi monarchy, fizzled out with little support under a heavy security blanket.

However, some of the statements carried by opposition groups find an echo in what many Saudis within the kingdom are saying privately.

While anything like a strong and broad-based political opposition movement is nowhere on the horizon, there have been small but significant steps taken since late 2003 in the form of petitions calling for reform.

The signatories have come from all sections of society - religious and secular, Shia as well as Sunni. Some petitioners went so far as to call for the creation of a constitutional monarchy.

Three of them were arrested and put on trial in August 2004 - which was seen as a message from the authorities that they would not accept being pressured along the path of reform.

However, the fact that the petitions were received by senior members of the royal family - and this development was reported in the Saudi media - is of significance.

In some cases the text of the petitions was posted on websites that could be accessed within the kingdom. Nevertheless, when the next step will be taken towards political plurality in Saudi Arabia, and in what direction it will lead, are unclear.

BBC Monitoring, based in Caversham in southern England, selects and translates information from radio, television, press, news agencies and the Internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages.



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