x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

'Moderate Islamist' Saudi professionals form political party

Islamic Umma Party says it believes in 'freedom of all humanity as God has intended' and in political pluralism.

RIYADH // Against the background of Egypt's pro-democracy revolution, a group of Saudi professionals have announced the formation of a political party, whose platform rests on the idea of a sharing of political power.

According to one of the party's founders, Abdul Aziz Mohammed al Wohaibi, a lawyer and political activist, the group's decision was "not related" to the events in Egypt, but that "it had created an environment for a movement like this".

Mr al Wohaibi agreed that the members of the group, which is calling itself the Islamic Umma Party, are mostly moderate Islamists, a description used by other Saudis who had read the party's manifesto on the internet, which was posted on February 10.

The party's programme discusses Islam's ability to adapt to the modern age. It also states that the organisers believe in "freedom of all humanity as God has intended" and in political pluralism.

Mohammed al Qahtani, a Riyadh-based human-rights activist, said that he had met some of the party's founders and "they talk about democracy and human rights".

One of the party's initial demands is the "immediate" freeing of political prisoners and financial compensation for their detention. They list more than 200 prisoners, including Saudi doctors and lawyers as well as some foreigners.

The group has sent a letter to King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, which can be viewed on the party's website. The letter is polite, but claims the right to set up a political party. Rather than requesting permission to do so, the letter notifies the monarch that this is what has been done.

Mr al Qahtani said the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, a human rights and pro-reform group that he and others set up, sent a similar letter to the king to notify him that the association had been established.

Mr al Wohaibi said Saudi Arabia had signed international conventions that recognise the citizens' right to establish peaceful political parties. He added that the group is hoping for a positive response from the royal court.

Many Saudis have said in interviews that they expect some changes in the kingdom to reflect the profound shift in political attitudes set off by the Egyptian revolution.

"It's like when you are in jail and then you are out, not just for Egyptians, but for all Arabs," said the columnist Ahmad al Farraj.

Already, there have been two fleeting protests, one in Jeddah on January 28 to protest against officials' response to the flood there, and one Monday in Riyadh outside the interior ministry by about 50 women demanding the release of male relatives held for long periods on suspicion of terror-related activities.

In an apparent effort to deflect public anger over the floods in Jeddah, Prince Khalid Al Faisal, the governor of Mecca, held a meeting with five prominent media figures during which they questioned him about steps the government is taking to fix Jeddah's flooding problems and a crackdown on corruption.

The meeting was broadcast on Saudi television.

Turki al Ballaa, the manager of a Riyadh law firm, said: I expect the government to do a lot to make people happier." Perhaps, he suggested, there would be a "speeding up" of elections for municipal councils, for which no date has yet been set, and of the construction of several new "economic cities" around the kingdom.

Egypt's swift reversal "broke the stagnated atmosphere in the Middle East and people are looking forward to change," said Mr al Qahtani. "I got an e-mail from Saudi liberals this morning," he said. "They want to establish a political party too."

cmurphy@thenational.ae