Interview with Saudi social anthropologist Madawi al-Rasheed

"Gradual change is a myth, Saudi society is ready"

Madawi al-Rasheed is one of a group of Saudi exiles responsible for founding NAAS – the National Assembly Party. Set up on Saudi National Day in September, it is the first ever organised political resistance to challenge the House of Saud. Al-Rasheed talked to Jannis Hagmann about the party's aims and ambitions

Ms Al-Rasheed, you recently founded something that in reality doesn't exist: a Saudi Arabian political party. Who are you hoping to address with this?

Al-Rasheed: It is a party! We are a group of exiled academics and activists who decided that it was the right time to found a political party. Our main message is for the people in Saudi Arabia. We call on Saudi Arabia to institute democracy as a political system to replace the absolute monarchy.

You have called it the National Assembly Party or NAAS. What kind of legal status does it have?

Al-Rasheed: One of our first objectives was to register the party as a non-profit organisation in Britain because two of us are based in London.

Will you register the group under Saudi law as well?

Al-Rasheed: Political parties are banned in Saudi Arabia. At the moment, it is impossible to engage in any kind of political activism in Saudi Arabia. There is no platform or any kind of forum to share ideas or visions for a better future.

In your founding statement you call for an elected parliament, separation of powers, an independent judiciary and the rule of law. Is this a call for revolution?

Al-Rasheed: It's up to the people, but it's not a call for revolution. We did not call on the people to take to the streets. We are trying to mobilise people peacefully, through a strategy that addresses the limitations of political activism. It would be unethical for us to ask people inside Saudi Arabia to put their lives in danger, given the repression they face. People have been arrested for simply tweeting critical opinions.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (photo: picture-alliance/Abaca/Bakis Press)
Heavy-handed rule and cosmetic reforms: Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy in which no political opposition is tolerated. For some time now, the authorities have also been cracking down increasingly hard on critics. Ever since the rise of Mohammed bin Salman to the position of Crown Prince and the assassination of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was critical of the government, the country has faced harsh criticism for its human rights violations

Given the limitations in Saudi Arabia, what exactly is NAAS intending to do?

Al-Rasheed:  We aim to provide an alternative source of information for Saudis. Our goal is to raise awareness of what democracy means. The terms 'democracy' and 'political party' are taboo in Saudi Arabia. Democracy is seen as blasphemy coming from the West to corrupt the pious. Political parties are seen as schism, leading to discord and chaos. In our view, calling for democracy is the only way to save our society from disintegration and from power struggles within the ruling family.

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