Understanding Saudi Arabia: An Interview with Ali Alyami

On October 23, 2012, Sharnoff’s Global Views interviewed Dr. Ali H. Alyami. Ali was born and raised in south-west Saudi Arabia.

obama-saudi-rulersHe worked for the oil industry in Saudi Arabia before coming to study in the US.

Ali graduated with a PhD in government from the Claremont Graduate School, in Southern California. His thesis was titled: The Impact of Modernization on the Stability of the Saudi Monarchy.

Ali is the founder and executive director of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, CDHR, in Washington, DC.

CDHR focuses on promoting peaceful and incremental democratic reforms in Saudi Arabia, including empowerment of women, religious freedom, free flow of information, free movement, free press, privatization of government industries, free elections, non-sectarian constitution, and codified rule of law, transparency and accountability. Read other articles by Ali.

SGV: Tell us a bit about you background

AA: I was born and raised in the agriculturally rich Najran region, Southern Saudi Arabia. I left the region at an early age to look for work with the oil industry in eastern Saudi Arabia. I was employed by ARAMCO and some ten years later was granted a scholarship to study in the US. My political views and activities did not appeal to the company. However, I completed my education on my own and by then I was unpopular with the Saudi regime. I felt I would do much good to stay in the United States and pursue my human rights activities and promotion of democratic reforms in Saudi Arabia. Nothing can be more gratifying than what I chose to do; albeit, it has been and continued to be an uphill struggle, to say the least.

SGV: What inspired you to create the Center for Democracy & Human Rights in Saudi Arabia?

AA: This question is asked of me very often and there is no short answer. At an early age (four to six years old), I saw the arrival of extensive Saudi police, violent clerics of the Wahhabi brand and ruthless governors. These groups established a system designed to render the indigenous population unworthy of respect and no more than modern day slaves to the Saudi ruling family and its religious doctrine.

I also saw injustice committed against women, Yemenis and the remaining Jewish population in our region. I saw hunger, diseases, polluted drinking water and total absence of health care facilities. This was happening when the Saudi representatives collecting the meager farms and livestock sources of food as Zakat and feast on their loot while the rest of the local people were starving. I saw the same thing wherever I went in Saudi Arabia. All of this and more happened at an early age and as I grew up, I saw more and felt that the least I could do is to expose the system and its brutal handlers for what it is, a system of degradation, humiliation and exploitation.

SGV: Can you describe some of the achievements CDHR has made in raising awareness about human rights in Saudi Arabia? What are some of you current projects?

AA: I know and I have evidence of some of the positive impacts this small center has made, but to brag about them will be harmful to what we are trying to achieve. However, we know that many Saudi people, across the board, including royals, read our unabashed commentaries and analyses and engage us in intense debate which is one of our major objectives. We have written an extensive white paper for decision makes and other interested organizations and individuals to use when engaging Saudi officials in political reforms. It was hand distributed to every member of the US Congress among others.

SGV: In your view, why has the “Arab Spring” largely passed over Saudi Arabia? Why have we not seen the widespread protests like we have in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, Syria and Yemen?

AA: The Arab Spring is still going. It’s unstoppable and irreversible and the Saudi people have shown that it’s impacting them. The ongoing demonstration in the Eastern Province, Riyadh, Hafr Al-Battan, Abha, in Mecca and the game changing women’s demands for their rights are indicative of the Saudi people’s determination to attain their rights, hopefully by peaceful means, but that might not work given the state of minds of the ruling theocratic and autocratic Saudi men.

We have not seen massive demonstration in Saudi Arabia during the Arab Revolt because the regime has instilled fear in the hearts and minds of its oppressed and marginalized population. March 11, 2011 was supposed to be a day of rage in Saudi Arabia. That did not happen because by the time people woke up that morning, major city streets were filled with security men and equipment, cities were divided into small sections and areas of suspected activists were guaranteed, helicopters were hovering overhead, millions of religious and political anti-demonstration pamphlets were distributed all over the country. People were told if they dared to demonstrate, they would be fined heavily, sent to prisons and could even lose their citizenship.

Anyone who assumes that the Saudi people are not affected by what’s happening in their backyard in major ways will be in for a treat. Sixty to seventy percent of the Saudi population (men and women) is under twenty-five and like their international counterparts, are yearning for freedom of stifling social, political, sexual and religious oppression. Bribes, handouts and scholarships to study in free societies are not good enough to close the Saudi people’s eyes to the rampant corruptions, abuse of power and the use of religion as a tool of oppression, discrimination, segregation, incitement against segments of their compatriots and against non-Muslims. In short, the Saudi people suffer from the symptoms that forced millions of other Arabs to commit violent actions against their dictators.

SGV: Why have the Arab “Republics” experienced the most violence during the “Arab Spring?” Is there something about the nature of monarchies in the Middle East which provide a degree of legitimacy and the people enjoy a higher standard of living?

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AA: For the most part, the sword and external support provide legitimacy and provide security for the Saudi and other absolute monarchies, especially in the Gulf Arab states. Libyans were enjoying more social services than Saudi citizens. Forty percent of the Saudi population lives below the UN designated poverty level in one of the richest countries in the world. The Saudi people are becoming increasingly more cognizant of their usurped wealth and rights as well as less fearful, more united and much more informed about their common grievances, thanks to the uncontrollable flow of information over the internet, especially the social media. Despite the Western commentators, most media outlets and analysts’ dismissal of the Saudi people will to rise up against their oppressive regime, it’s only a matter of time before violent uprising erupts in Saudi Arabia because most people are slowly giving up hope in democratic reforms peacefully.

SGV: Do you believe that the majority of Saudis want change and reform and if so what role, if any, can the US play in helping promote democracy?

AA: The only form of government the Saudis have known is the Saudi absolute monarchs; they have nothing to compare their present situation with other than what they see happening in other Arab countries, good or bad. The Saudi regime has succeeded, to a point, in convincing their subdued population into believing that they are better off than other Arab populations, especially in the areas of stability, values, tradition and honor, especially when it comes to men’s domination over every aspect of women’s lives and livelihood. This sentiment of being better off than other Arabs is evaporating because most Saudis, especially the youth, are becoming better informed about living conditions outside their country. Furthermore, the majority of the Saudi population is united by their resentment of the ruling family and their increasingly discredited religious extremist doctrine, albeit for different reasons.

As the principal superpower ally and main protector of the Saudi ruling family, rich Saudi oil fields and territorial sovereignty, the United States has enormous leverage over the Saudi ruling family despite the arguments presented by Saudi beneficiaries in the US and elsewhere. The Saudi royals are not stupid; they know that as long as the international economies depend on oil, the US will protect them as long as they ensure uninterrupted flow of oil at market price. The Saudis also know that the minute they stop being useful to the US, their days would be numbered.

Given this reality, the US is in a position to pressure the Saudi regime to embark on drastic political reforms, religious tolerance and empowerment of women which is the key to defeating extremism in Saudi Arabia and throughout the Muslim World. President George W. Bush and his gutsy Secretary of State, Dr. Condoleezza Rice, called on the Saudis “to share power with their people” and that shook the foundation of the Saudi regime.

SGV: Some Saudi officials demand that the United States respect the Islamic faith and strongly denounce any incidents where Islam is criticized. Shouldn’t there be a quid-pro-quo where Saudi Arabia is expected to respect non-Muslim minorities and promote the same type of tolerance and mutual respect? Does the US need to be more assertive in demanding that respect and toleration is not a one-way street?

AA: No government in modern history has used religion more effectively and irrefutably as a tool of control, exploitation, discrimination, segregation, oppression and rejection of “The Other” than the Saudi/Wahhabi allies starting at the formation of their enduring alliance in the middle of the 18th Century. They used religion to invade, conquer, loot and subdue the rest of the Arabian tribes between 1744 and 1932. They still use the same methods in governing domestically and as part of their foreign policy.They demand respect for Islam and freedom for Muslims to build religious sanctuaries in non-Muslim countries and to worship freely everywhere in the world.

At the same time, the Saudi regime and its religious institutions consider people of other faiths unbelievers and forbid them from visiting cities where Muslim holy shrines are located and ban them from worshiping publicly, let alone building places of worship in Saudi Arabia. The non-Muslim communities have the right and must demand religious reciprocity from the Saudis and other Muslim countries. This is not only the right thing to do, but is in the best interest of the Saudi people, all Muslims and for global peace, harmonious coexistence and economic prosperity. The US can and must lead this campaign and the sooner the better.

SGV: Finally, what message would you like to share with the Saudi and American people?

AA: Rights, freedom and the right of the individual to be in charge of his or her destiny are not given; they must be demanded and obtained peacefully which is unlikely to happen under the Saudi/Wahhabi pre-modern institutions and way of thinking. Most Saudi men and women are educated, and aspire for a better future. Only they can change things for themselves and for generations to come.

CDHR was established to promote democratic reforms in the motherland, social justice, and freedom of worship, free expression and non-sectarian constitution where all inhabitants of Saudi Arabia are protected under the rule of codified law that is applicable to all regardless of social, religious, gender, ethnic and economic status or political affiliation.

SGV: Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us.