Intellectuals and Women Petition Throne

It was an epic moment.

On Thursday, September 25, a group of Saudi intellectuals was admitted to the private office of Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz and presented the de facto Saudi monarch with a landmark petition for reform. Abdullah had arranged for defense minister Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz from the royal family’s rival faction to be present for a show of unity.

The document, entitled “In Defense of the Nation”, carrying more than 300 signatures, called for radical reforms by the royal government to stem the rising tide of Islamic extremism in the kingdom.

The group of seven or eight intellectuals calling on the prince was led by Professor Khaled Dahlil, a lecturer at the University of Riyadh, the writer Turki Hamad and Professor Najiv Hanizi, a Shiite from the oil-rich Eastern Provinces, inhabited by more than a million Shiites. The three read out from the petition in turn.

This was no ordinary occasion. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Saudi sources, never before has a delegation of Saudi intellectuals been admitted to the inner sanctum of a reigning prince, much less to read out a political manifesto. It was also the first time a Shiite representative was granted an audience with the crown prince.

Our sources report that Abdullah immediately ordered a media blackout on the meeting and contents of the petition lest word seep out inside the kingdom.

Running down the signatories, the delegation pointed out to the two princes that they numbered 305 Saudi academics, intellectuals and business executives, including 51 women – another Saudi first. They went on to stress that their message was one of national unity and loyalty to the crown. They called on all Saudi subjects, regardless of tribal affiliation or religious sect, to rally around the House of Saud in the war against terror.

The three intellectuals then recited words never before heard in a Saudi palace. Terrorism can only be fought by sweeping reforms of the Saudi justice, economic and social systems. The petitioners went on to declare: “The royal family must accept the principle that we are its partners in government – not only its subjects – and bear an equal right to defend the homeland.”

These words were a direct challenge to the very foundations of the Saudi throne, namely that its power is absolute and indivisible.

But the petitioners were not done yet.

“You of the royal family have held back essential reforms. Because you have kept the people out of participation in government, the kingdom finds itself in dire straits, with suicide terrorists blowing themselves up in the center of our capital city” – a reference to the May 12 al Qaeda attacks that killed scores of foreigners and Saudis.

The intellectuals also had their say on the privileged status of the dominant Wahhabi sect:

“Every citizen owns the right to voice an opinion and no single party should enjoy hegemony over others. Such hegemony does not represent the true tolerance of the Islamic faith. It casts a shadow on Islam’s enlightening influence and breeds the new ideology of terrorism that arrogates the right to denounce good Muslims as heretics.”

This manifesto was the fiercest denunciation of Al Qaeda ideology recorded in any Muslim country. It was also a battle cry.

“We propose to fight this manifestation by battling the terrible corruption plaguing the kingdom, its bureaucracy and the ways in which public funds are squandered.”

On domestic issues, the academics were boldest.

“The kingdom must broaden its manufacturing base and not depend solely on oil. The national wealth should be fairly and evenly distributed around the populace and reach all the regions,” the petitioners insisted.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Saudi experts read into these phrases a call for Saudi governance to be completely overhauled, national wealth redistributed and the Saudi throne’s concept of rule swept away. The kingdom’s million Shiites would receive the first cut of the oil revenues drawn from the regions they inhabit – even ahead of the royal princes.

On a no less sensitive issue, the petitioners supported “the right of Saudi women to take their place in society and the economy”. Among the women who signed the petition were the writer Fawzia Abu Khaled and the psychologist Layla Abdullah al-Qazam.

The reading over, Abdullah and Sultan promised the petitioners to study the document carefully and give serious consideration to the points it raised.

One of the petitioners then stepped forward and said: “Your majesty, I would like to remind you that you said the same thing to a group that presented a petition to you last January. But nothing was done.”

Abdullah and Sultan responded with stony silence.

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