A group of Saudi dissidents exiled in countries including the United Kingdom and United States have announced the launch of an opposition party, the first organised political resistance under King Salman’s rule.
Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy that does not tolerate any political opposition, but the formation of the National Assembly Party on the anniversary of the kingdom’s founding came amid a growing state crackdown on dissent and freedom of expression.
Past attempts to organise politically in the Gulf state in 2007 and 2011 were suppressed and members arrested.
“We hereby announce the establishment of the National Assembly Party, which aims to institute democracy as a form of government in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” the group said in a statement on Wednesday.
The development is unlikely to seriously undermine the authority of the Arab world’s most powerful ruling family. But it poses a fresh challenge to Saudi Arabia’s rulers as they grapple with low crude oil prices and gear up to host a G20 summit in November amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The party is headed by prominent London-based human rights activist Yahya Assiri, and its members include academic Madawi al-Rasheed, researcher Saeed bin Nasser al-Ghamdi, US-based Abdullah Alaoudh and Canada-based Omar Abdulaziz, sources close to the outfit told the AFP news agency.
“We are announcing the launch of this party at a critical moment to try to save our country … to institute a democratic future and to respond to our people’s aspirations,” Assiri, the party’s general-secretary, told AFP.
Assiri, a former Royal Saudi Air Force officer, founded the London-based human rights organisation ALQST, which has catalogued what it calls widespread state abuses including arrests of female activists, academics and royal family members.
The announcement comes at a time when “the scope for politics has become blocked in all directions”, the party statement said.
“The government constantly practices violence and repression, with mounting numbers of political arrests and assassinations, increasingly aggressive policies against regional states, enforced disappearances and people being driven to flee the country,” it added.
Rasheed, the party’s spokeswoman, stressed that its founders had “no personal animosity with the ruling family”.
But the absence of an independent judiciary, the government’s tight control of the local media and “muzzling of public opinion” were other factors that led to the group’s formation, the party statement said.
Saudi Arabia has long faced international criticism for its human rights record. That has intensified since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was named heir to the Saudi throne in June 2017.
In particular, the October 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul set off unprecedented international scrutiny of the kingdom’s human rights record.