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Last Updated: Friday, 20 February, 2004, 14:43 GMT
The voice of dissent
Saudi flag
Is time running out for the House of Saud?

In a HARDtalk interview on 19 February, Tim Sebastian talks to Saad Al-Fagih about his group, the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia.

If the reports are to be believed, the Saudi Arabian royal family is facing its most serious challenge ever.

With rising violence and economic problems plaguing its population, how long can the House of Saud hold out against citizens agitating for reform?

we condemn the religious establishment in the country
Saad Al-Fagih

Saad Al-Fagih is the leader of the London-based dissident group, Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia (MIRA).

Using the internet and MIRA's own satellite TV channel, he managed to organise unprecedented protests on the streets of Riyadh last year, and he claims that the royal family will have to start acknowledging its people's desire for reform.

But, he claims, they will not be able to cope with even the most basic reforms:

"Any proper reform is incompatible with their stay in power .. they have to go".

Al-Qaeda

He also believes that the mutawas, Saudi Arabia's feared religious police, should be disbanded:

"The religious establishment is part of the corruption .. we condemn the religious establishment in the country and we believe it is much more effective in the survival of the regime than the intelligence and the police force .. they are much more useful to the regime".

The royal family has, of course, made some moves towards reform. It has promised local municipal elections in the near future, and has held a five-month dialogue with a group of intellectuals and academics about the prospects for change.

But to Dr Al-Fagih, these moves are not enough. He believes that another act of violence could destabilise the royal family enough for real change to occur.

I think we are much more dangerous to them than bombs and missiles of Al-Qaeda
Saad Al-Fagih

He has never condemned Al-Qaeda's attacks on September 11, and he refuses to condemn the bombings in Riyadh which have killed dozens of people:

"What I condemn is the regime's attitude which has created ideal circumstances for violence which neither America nor Europe has been aware of .. I have to condemn the correct people who have created the circumstances for this violence.".

Dr Al-Fagih told Tim Sebastian that his group is committed to peaceful change and denied publishing messages from militia groups (including Al-Qaeda) on MIRA's website.

A new Saudi Arabia

So what would Dr Al-Fagih's new Saudi Arabia look like?

He told Tim Sebastian that the laws should be changed so that Shia Muslims are not subject to harassment and discrimination.

He also believes that women should be given equal rights to men, and should be allowed to vote.

His views may be controversial in Saudi Arabia, and there are people who would like to silence Dr Al-Fagih.

Last year he was the subject of an attempted kidnapping. He freely admits that the Saudi government considers him to be dangerous:

"In terms of the power of our call for change, the power of our words, the power of our debate and discussion through our network, yes, I think we are much more dangerous to them than bombs and missiles of Al-Qaeda".

HARDtalk can be seen on BBC World at 04:30 GMT, 11:30 GMT, 15:30 GMT, 19:30 GMT and 00:30 GMT

It can also be seen on BBC News 24 at 04:30 and 23:30



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