A group of Saudi dissidents exiled in countries including Britain and the US announced Wednesday the launch of an opposition party, the first organised political resistance under King Salman’s rule.
Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy that does not tolerate any political opposition, but the formation of the National Assembly Party on the kingdom’s national day comes amid a growing state crackdown on dissent and freedom of expression.
“We hereby announce the establishment of the National Assembly Party, which aims to institute democracy as a form of government in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” the group said in a statement.
The party is headed by prominent London-based human rights activist Yahya Assiri, and its members include academic Madawi al-Rasheed, researcher Saeed bin Nasser al-Ghamdi, US-based Abdullah Alaoudh and Canada-based Omar Abdulaziz, sources close to the outfit told AFP.
The development is unlikely to unseat the Arab world’s most powerful monarchy, but the development poses a fresh challenge to Saudi Arabia’s rulers as they grapple with low crude oil prices and gear up to host a G20 summit in November.
“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 AFP.
Assiri, a former Royal Saudi Air Force officer, founded the London-based human rights organisation ALQST.
There was no immediate reaction from Saudi authorities.
The announcement comes at a time when “the scope for politics has become blocked in all directions”, the party statement said.
“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,” it added.
Saudi Arabia has long faced international criticism over its human rights record.
But the criticism has grown since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was named heir to the Saudi throne in June 2017.
In particular, the brutal October 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul sparked unprecedented international scrutiny of the kingdom’s human rights record.
The global fallout over the murder tarnished the crown prince’s reputation as a self-styled reformer, casting a shadow over his ambitious attempts to modernise the conservative kingdom’s economy and society.
The formation of the opposition party is a “very long overdue move”, said Alaoudh, whose father Salman al-Awda, a religious cleric, faces the death penalty after he was arrested in September 2017.
The party seeks to protect the country from “upheaval and absolute dictatorship and pave the way for democracy in a peaceful transition,” he told AFP.