Saudis attack rulers by tape and fax: Robert Fisk examines how a hi-tech form of underground protest is proving successful in unsettling the monarchy

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The Independent Online
DESPITE attempts by the Saudi authorities to destroy the growing Islamic reformist movement in the country, thousands of cassette tape recordings by anonymous Saudi preachers are again flooding the kingdom. All of them call for political change, an independent foreign policy and a reduction in King Fahd's powers.

Documents in the possession of the Independent show that the demands for reform are on a far larger scale than was previously imagined - and that it was the Gulf war that originally provoked the movement to make a series of political demands and accusations against the behaviour of specific members of the royal family.

The Mukhabarat (Saudi security police) is still trying to identify the anonymous and elderly speaker on a tape now circulating in Riyadh who calls upon religious leaders to reassess their allegiance to the king. The speaker even advises Mukhabarat officers that they 'should be Muslims first' and must not be 'fooled' by the government. A second tape by the same speaker warns the royal family that it should no longer assume that the support of the ulema (Saudi religious experts) gives them legitimacy.

The tape declares: 'When the (Gulf) war finished the government thought it controlled everything and that the victory of the United States over Iraq was a victory for the royal family against internal political opposition.

'The family thought this had confirmed them in power. But they are wrong.'

It was in the aftermath of the Gulf war that the Saudi authorities were confronted by the first formal document from the 'Islamic movement', sent to King Fahd. It was signed by 400 clergymen, scholars and judges, all demanding freedom of speech, equality of citizenship and freedom of the courts.

So shocked was the Saudi royal family by the impertinence of this open letter that several junior princes, it now emerges, called for the signatories to be put to death, a demand that was turned down by King Fahd. But a series of faxes sent to King Fahd last year (copies of which have been obtained by the Independent) demonstrate just how deep-rooted and personal is the criticism now directed at named members of the royal family.

A fax from a preacher in the southern Assir province, Ayyed bin Abdullah bin Ayed al-Qarni, alleges that Prince Khaled al-Faisal (the Assir governor, who is a son of King Faisal and a nephew of Fahd) falsely imprisoned him (because he condemned drug-taking) and tricked him into a signing a bogus confession that he opposed the royal family.

A further fax to the King (who is always addressed respectfully as 'the protector of the Two Holy Shrines' of Mecca and Medina) attacks another prince in the royal family for allegedly stealing thousands of acres of land and then beating those Saudi property owners who dared to complain. The Prince, according to this message to King Fahd, jailed the region's religious sharia court judges when they condemned the Prince for refusing to build hospitals, wells and roads.

It would be simplistic, however, to regard these unprecedented complaints to the King as exclusively conventional calls for liberalism and social freedom. Another fax sent to King Fahd, for example, bitterly condemns the existence of 'hippy gangs' in the Assir province. The fax continues: 'An adulterous woman who left her husband's house with a lover . . . was caught in the streets and sentenced to five years in prison. But she was released on the orders of the Emir (Prince Khaled) . . .

'A homosexual was sentenced to death under decree no 257/2 on the 13th of (March, 1991) . . . and by the Court of Justice six months later. So why has the sentence not yet been carried out?'

Other complaints have focused on tribal feuds and a complex dispute involving the destruction of pilgrims' tents during the 1992 haj at Mecca. But the bulk of the protests have a strong political undertow.

Other faxes, for example, followed an incident at King Saud University in Riyadh when Sheikh Hamdan al- Hamdan, the leader of Friday prayers, was sacked by Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz, the governor of Riyadh, after criticism in the university mosque of government support for peace with Israel. When a new leader of Friday prayers appeared in the mosque a week later, worshippers staged a noisy protest. One of them shouted 'Where's our Imam?' and Hamdan, who had returned to the mosque as a member of the public, responded: 'I've been sacked]' The altercation, which appears to have been orchestrated, was secretly taped and is now circulating as yet another cassette.

If the growing chorus of complaints from religious and secular figures in Saudi Arabia is both disparate and sometimes illiberal, it does have one common theme: a demand for ac countability by King Fahd and the princes, and the need for real rather than token participation in decision- making by Saudis outside the royal family.

Several of the documents sent to the King openly deride his plans for the much-publicised Majlis Ash-Shura with which King Fahd has so often attempted to assuage public demands for greater freedom of speech.

The kingdom's attempted suppression this year of the so-called Defence of Legitimate Rights (and the arrest and resignation of its committee chairman, Professor Mohamed al- Masari) can now be seen as another stage in the struggle between the royal family and a new generation of religious and professional leaders who are demanding some form of participation in the running of the nation.

King Fahd is widely rumoured to be in ill health, although his recent appearances belie this, and familiar reports of family contests for the future leadership are beginning to emerge. Two of King Fahd's brothers, Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz and Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz (who has already been named crown prince), are now said to be the strongest contenders - respectively representing the 'liberal' and 'conservative' wings of the family.

But these intrigues have infuriated those who are now convinced that an Islamic identity must at last take the place of tribal loyalties. This has been the underlying message of all the approaches made to King Fahd since a letter addressed to him by a few religious scholars in the winter of 1990 - when Western armies were gathered to fight Saddam Hussein - demanded political and social reform.

The subsequent letters and faxes and tapes have effectively destroyed one of the kingdom's primary rules: that the King may be privately advised of complaints but must never be publicly petitioned. The authorities were stunned to discover that the first fax to the King was distributed in Dhahran in the eastern provinces and in Jizan near the Yemeni frontier on the same day.

When the 1992 letter to the King was originally distributed, he persuaded the religious council to condemn its circulation as 'sinful', a decision which gave the letter immense publicity and propaganda value.

Cassettes and fax, it seems, are now the most dangerous weapons in the hands of King Fahd's critics.

(Photograph omitted)