Yahya Assiri is a Saudi human-rights activist and prominent critic of his country’s regime. He runs an organization, ALQST, which documents human rights violations in Saudi Arabia. WikiTribune talks to Assiri about how he became an activist, and what lies ahead for Saudi Arabia under the almost de facto leadership of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
Saudi Arabia was relatively late connecting to the internet because the government was concerned about how this new service would affect the society (Springer). But Assiri’s life changed when Saudi Arabia went online in the year 2000.
By day, he was an officer for the Royal Saudi Air Force in a well-paid government job. Off-duty, he was getting involved in political forums, discussing issues such as poverty, corruption and repression.
Assiri now lives in London, after applying for asylum in 2013, which, he said, was mainly because the Saudi government had started arresting (Amnesty) his “fellow human rights defenders”. His NGO, ALQST, which is a Quranic term meaning “justice”, uses an underground network of activists in Saudi Arabia to update on developments there, according to a 2015 profile of Assiri by Middle East Eye.
Saudi Arabia has changed drastically since the ascension of Mohammad bin Salman, also known as MBS. His ailing father, King Salman, is 81, so MBS, 32, is expected to succeed him.
MBS’s ambitious leadership brought focus on the royal family’s role in Saudi Arabia in 2017 in a number of ways. He spearheaded the ongoing blockade against Qatar and ordered the arrest of around 500 prominent people in a sweeping anti-corruption purge. Meanwhile, he has promoted himself as an economic and social reformer. Abroad, Saudi Arabia’s role in the war in Yemen has caused the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
The interview has been edited for clarity.
Question: How far back does your human rights activism go? And how has the country changed since you left?
I started to write anonymously and defend some rights ever since Saudi Arabia had the internet in the year 2000 (Internet Live Stats). However, at that time most of us activists were not really aware of the concept of human rights. I started to meet up with activists and gather on the ground around 2005. In 2007, after the arrest of Jeddah reformers, the human rights concept started to be clearer for us. Activists at that time started doing real human rights work. I was close to them but I wasn’t a formal member any of the NGOs at that time until I resigned from the Royal Saudi Air Force.
The situation in Saudi Arabia has changed in two ways. The government has become more aggressive, but the society has become smarter, more aware and wiser.
What’s ALQST trying to tackle?
We started in 2014, aiming to cover the human rights violations in Saudi Arabia. We publish documents and help victims by giving advice and legal aid. We contact the Human Rights Council (HRC) about the violations. We help international NGOs and the media by giving them information about situations on the ground.
However, this is still too much for a small NGO. Right now we are trying to do that but we can’t cover all cases.
How has human rights changed under the de facto leadership of Mohammad bin Salman?
At the beginning there was a risk that people will accept the idea that MBS can do social and economic reforms without political reform and without giving people their rights.
Later on, it became very clear to everyone, inside and outside, that there’s no chance for real reform while there are no transparency, civil society institutions, public participation, independent media and freedom of expression.
MBS is violating human rights more than anyone else. Outside, he is responsible for the worst Saudi decision, the war on Yemen. Inside, he is responsible for unbelievable mass arrest.
Do you think MBS has what it takes to fully lead Saudi Arabia once his father, King Salman, is gone? What sort of future do you see under his leadership?
MBS is very weak now; he’s lost all the support from Saudi authorities, such as the royal family, the Wahhabis and Western allies. The royal family is not united as before, and not all of them support MBS. The Wahhabis are not sure if he still wants them or if he will turn on them. Western governments are really worried about him and they are not very keen to keep on protecting him. This what we [ALQST] always hear when we meet with Western diplomats.
Western media often report that MBS is popular at home among young people. How much of this do we know to be true in a country where expressing what you really think can be dangerous?
MBS pays large amounts of money for PR by bribing Western media. But he doesn’t bribe with money because Western journalists or figures could face investigations in their countries. Instead, he bribes them in the form of gifts like Rolex watches, luxury holidays in Jeddah, Hajj visas, work visas and contracts to do very small work. For example, some people can get 5 million riyals [approximately €1,110,500] for doing 50 pages of research. With this dirty money, he’s got some journalists and media on his side.
However, most of the Western media are still criticizing MBS and talking about his crimes. Those who say that MBS has support from Saudis probably haven’t heard of the Saudi society. It’s good to ask: do Saudis have freedom of speech to judge their society by saying that they’re happy or not? Can they talk about Saudi society when they can’t express their views freely? What will happen to them if they critique MBS?
This always reminds me of Donald Trump’s commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, who praised the lack of demonstrations (Politico) in Saudi Arabia where protests are punishable by death.
All of these liberalization reforms that are due to commence in 2018 – women driving and cinemas opening – is there a risk that they could just backfire? How likely do you see them happening?
Women driving only came after real and continued work from activists. They put real pressure on MBS and the government’s allies. When the government made that decision, it didn’t even apologize to the Saudis for banning a right for more than 30 years without any reason!
The government also called all activists and warned them to stay silent and not comment on the decision. Also, they haven’t freed the people in prison who defended women driving.
Cinema was also banned for no reason and now they’re bringing it back just to make money. It’s just another way to control everything. These things should be left to the society, where people can open cinemas on their own without interference from the government.
What about his economic reform, Vision 2030?
Vision 2030 is just a huge propaganda and PR. The real vision will happen only when we have transparency, civil society institutions, popular participation, independent media and freedom of expression.
Can Mohammad bin Salman ‘moderate Islam’, which he claimed that he will?
The Saudi regime presented to the world Wahhabism. It founded it, spreads it and funds it. It’s a very extreme version of Islam, sectarian and exclusivist. They use Wahhabism to fight all their political enemies and they exploit the religion for their own interests.
So how can MBS talk about moderating Islam, attack reformers and moderates, while exploiting the religion?
Once the government stops exploiting the religion, the religion will be moderate. The government must allow people to live freely without the sectarianism that was created by the authorities.
What can be done to curb the activities of Saudi Arabia in Yemen?
Every respectable media, every honest politician and every single person, everywhere in the world, that has real humanity must stop supporting the Saudi dictator regime that’s attacking innocent people and destroying their lands. Pressure must be put on the Saudi government.
The world must also push Yemenis to stop this proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran – as they are fighting on their behalf – and to go for real democracy through negotiation, not through war. This negotiation should be sponsored by neutral parties like the UN, Kuwait, Oman or the EU.
One thing for sure is that what’s happening right now in Saudi Arabia will not continue for long, that’s impossible.
- See also a previous WikiTribune piece on Mohammad bin Salman.
Note: WikiTribune interviewed Assiri because he is a prominent critic of the Saudi government and has regularly called for social and economic reforms.