Exiled Saudi dissidents launch political party; hope to dethrone MBS and open door to democracy

From left to right: Activist Yahya Assiri, Professor Madawi al-Rasheed, comedian Omar Abdulaziz, and scholar Abdullah al-Aoudh, all Saudi nationals in exile, who are founding members of the National Assembly Party.

A group of prominent Saudi dissident figures in exile has launched a political party that they hope will bring about a transition to democracy and ultimately dethrone the Arab kingdom’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the first formalized political opposition during King Salman’s reign.

The new National Assembly Party was established on Wednesday in London, at a rather safe distance from the tentacles of an absolute monarchy, which has been in power in the peninsular country for decades.

The ultra-conservative country, where political parties are strictly banned and sedition or criticism of the king merits long prison terms, has been ruled exclusively by members of the Al-Saud family since Ibn Saud founded the monarchy in September 1932.

The formation of the opposition party comes as the self-styled reformer crown prince has pledged a number of economic and social reforms, particularly with much fanfare for women, promising them a breath of fresh air in the stifling male-dominant atmosphere.

“This is an initiative that builds on previous Saudi attempts to insert political and civil rights in government and allow people to experience democratic institutions," Madawi al-Rasheed, the spokeswoman of the new party, told Business Insider in an exclusive interview, excepts of which was published in a report on Saturday. 

“Six people announced their names knowing that their families in Saudi Arabia will be targeted and their lives might be in danger, including my life, as the Saudi regime is capable of reaching people abroad,” further said Rasheed, who is a Saudi expert based at the London School of Economics.

Saudi Arabia is by no means a safe country for opposition figures and dissidents, who are mostly behind bars. They are not even safe in the regional countries.  

Back in October 2018, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a leading critic of Saudi Arabia's current leadership, was gruesomely killed and dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

The horrendous crime plunged Saudi Arabia into its biggest crisis since the 9/11 attacks. Some Western governments, as well as the CIA, said they believed MBS ordered the hit — an accusation Saudi officials denied.

“The murder of Khashoggi is an example of that, and the surveillance, hacking of phones, and the verbal threatening of many, many activists,” Rasheed added

The other founding members are the London-based activist Yahya Asiri, the researcher Saeed bin Nasser al-Ghamdi, the US-based campaigner Abdullah al-Awda, and the Canada-based social media personality Omar Abdulaziz, the report further said.

The Saudi crown prince boasts of his so-called social reforms launched in 2017, but the new party says much is still to be done.

“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,” the National Assembly Party said in its launch statement.

Elsewhere in her interview, Rasheed said that the party was trying to recruit new members to boost its ranks both inside Saudi Arabia and abroad, acknowledging that such a move would be dangerous.

“It's not like we're going to give people IDs saying 'you're a member of this party.' Remember, this is a very dangerous thing: political parties are banned in Saudi Arabia,” she said.

Since the announcement of its formation on Wednesday, when Riyadh celebrated the kingdom’s national day, the founding members came under attack by Saudi bot accounts on social media.

“We have been bombarded with attacks. It's expected. The fact that we had to launch this party abroad is telling,” Rasheed added.

Since 2017, MBS has been running Saudi Arabia day-to-day as 84-year-old King Salman’s health is increasingly deteriorating. Upon the king’s death, the ambitious crown prince is poised to ascend to the throne.

The new party, however, strongly warned that the transition of power in post-Salman days could throw the country into the chaos that citizens would pay for.

“We all know that MBS doesn't have the consensus of the Royal Family to become King. He has silenced and marginalized his own relatives — let alone society — and we worry about a power struggle at the top level when King Salman dies, and society will pay a high price for that,” Rasheed further told Business Insider.

“So we are trying to create an alternative to this regime by adopting ideas that are actually proven to be better than the absolute monarchy that we have,” she added, adding that people under the Saudi regime have “no say” in what happens in the kingdom, where common people have “no institution.”

Rasheed stressed that what the new party is concerned with are the principles and institutions that enable people to have a say in how they are governed.

“Since the 1970s there hasn't been any margin of freedom that allows political action to take place at the level of society," she added, stressing that during the course of the last five years “it has become even worse.”

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