Most of Saudi Arabia’s history has been dominated by authoritarian systems of government, from caliphs to tribal leaders and kings. Democratic institutions such as a parliamentary body have never had a chance in the Arab kingdom. That history notwithstanding, a group of Saudis now residing in a slew of states across the globe have created a political party aimed at reforming Riyadh’s political system.

Introducing the National Assembly Party

According to Reuters, notable members of the recently formed National Assembly Party (NAAS) include Yahya Assiri, who leads UK-based Saudi rights group ALQST, Abdullah al-Awdah, the son of jailed Islamist preacher; esteemed Islamic scholar Saeed bin Nasser al-Ghamdi and Shi’ite activist Ahmed al-Mshikhs. 

Many of these individuals have been exiled by the Saudi government and now hold residence in the UK, US, and Canada. The budding group of politicians are therefore operating NAAS in absentia, making it even more unlikely that they will find success in their far-fetched goals, which include Riyadh establishing a parliament and introducing Constitutional separation of powers between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches.

As difficult as it is to imagine the Saudi monarchy relinquishing any sliver of power, it’s worth noting that Saudis are expressly forbid from even forming political parties such as NAAS. Other Saudis have previously attempted to do so from within the kingdom, but he monarchy stifled their plans in their infancy, arresting political party organizers on two occasions – first in 2007, then in 2011.

Given the astronomical odds of success, why even bother forming NAAS?

Planting Seeds For Future Change

“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 Agence France-Presse.

Fellow party member Madawi al-Rasheed explained, “The timing is very important… the climate of repression is only increasing.” NAAS will not, however, call for protests in Saudi Arabia, she emphasized. That decision is likely a practical one as much as it is political.

Protest movements aimed at democratizing Middle Eastern governments have a lackluster track record that inspires little confidence. Following the Arab Spring that involved nearly 20 states including Saudi Arabia, only a handful actually emerged with sustained democratic reforms. For the most part, one of two outcomes happened: monarchies, such as Jordan, remained in power, but offered some economic and political concessions; or governments were overthrown with their states devolving into more conflict, like civil war. 

In short, NAAS organizers understand little will come from inspiring an uprising that will surely be doomed to failure. Instead, NAAS was founded with the intention of planting seeds for slow, long-term changes — ideas that could take generations to become fixtures in the Arab kingdom.

MbS Gave Hope For Progressive Ideals

One need only look at how long it took the kingdom to reverse bans on women driving and cinemas. From 1957 to 2018, women were forbidden from driving in Saudi Arabia – the only state in the world to enforce such a measure. 

After the prolific rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, commonly referred to as MbS, Riyadh started to quickly change. International observers and Saudi nationals alike were drawn to MbS’ openness for change. During a 60 Minutes interview, the Saudi heir even lamented on how he desires a return to pre-1970s Saudi Arabia when women walked freely without wearing abayas. 

Riyadh Has a Long Way To Go

In this new age of progressive reform in Saudi Arabia, NAAS wants to push the envelop further. However, as progressive as MbS can be, he can be equally as brutal clamping down on threats to his power.

“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,” NAAS said in a statement.

MbS has targeted high-profile critics of his government, as illustrated the October 2018 murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, an American resident and Saudi national. 

Riyadh has one of the world’s worst records on human rights and an incredibly centralized power structure whereby the crown controls every aspect of government including the media and judiciary branch. Under MbS, freedom of expression has come under attack by the monarchy as Saudi Arabia attempts to curtail any notions of democratic life.

The Time Is Now

Judging by current events the future of Saudi Arabia is bipolar. On the one hand, MbS has breathed modern life and progressively, direly needed reforms into his state. On the other hand, enjoying these reforms requires submitting to the crown prince’s conception of complete and total control of all life within the kingdom. 

NAAS was created as a challenge to that idea and although its members can’t possibly realistically expect it to succeed in forcing constitutional changes, it is taking shape at an interesting point in time. The Saudi monarchy rose to power on the back of oil revenues, which led to a storied alliance with the US. 

But the sun is setting on oil empires, an observation made clearer this year as demand plummeted. MbS has a plan to reshape the Saudi economy, known as Vision 2030, but will the world buy into a state that has no glimmer of democratic institutions? Elsewhere across the globe, authoritarian leaders wield near complete power, but their people still some form of legislative representation. Take China, Russia, Iran, Jordan, Egypt, almost any other state and you will find political parties at the national level.

The goals of NAAS may take generations to achieve, but the time is now, as its members say, to put the wheels in motion. For right now, the party operates from outside the kingdom’s borders, but one day political parties may become a reality in Riyadh.

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