Britain has erupted in a storm of controversy over the threatened expulsion of Dr. Muhammad al-Masari, a Saudi Arabian dissident whose appeal for political asylum was denied on January 3. But while the British media focus on the possible involvement of a UK defense contractor in the expulsion scheme, the more important question is why the highly secretive House of Saud finds this bookish, non-violent physics professor so threatening. PNS analyst Peter Theroux is a writer and author of "Sandstorms" (W.W. Norton) and a translator of Arabic literature.
The royal government of Saudi Arabia hates to read about itself. The Kingdom's publicists keep it out of the news, and its censors diligently snip or smear out any frank news stories about it in incoming periodicals. Furthermore it rarely responds to attacks in print, on the lofty pretext that slanderers and the enemies of the Arabs and Islam deserve no attention whatever.
So when the Saudi government mounts a highly public and quixotic campaign to force the expulsion of Dr. Muhammad al-Masari from his place of exile in Britain, it is worth noting -- not the least because it reveals just what makes the highly secretive and seemingly invulnerable House of Saud flinch.
Only once before did Riyadh step into the ring of global media combat and that was when the royal family itself was ridiculed and shamed in the British-made TV movie Death of a Princess. At the time, the House of Saud blamed racism and world Zionism for the bad publicity.
Now, all hell has broken loose again, as British media delve into the manipulations of a huge UK defense contractor allegedly involved in the expulsion scheme -- a firm about to close in on a $4.5 billion arms deal with Riyadh, whose former senior official is now Britain's ambassador designate to the Kingdom.
But the real story isn't big business plotting with the British government and an Arab monarchy to ditch a dissident. It's Dr. Masari himself and why the House of Saud sees him as so threatening. Dr. Masari's crime: he has spoken and written cogently of a democratic Arabia of the future and founded a non-violent group, the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights (CDLR), which has openly condemned the all-too-visible corruption of the royal family. CDLR even publishes a feature called "Prince of the Month" to call attention to individual cases of royal waste and debauchery.
In part it is CDLR's very non-violence that has Riyadh so worried. Saudi kings have generally met with popular approval in their policy of handling violent opposition with swift retribution -- whether it be shooting 17 Shiites in political riots in November 1979 or killing hundreds in the assault to recapture the Holy Mosque at Mecca that same month.
By contrast, the government finds al-Masari's reasoned appeals against monarchy and corruption infuriatingly hard to discredit. Riyadh has traditionally tried to tar its opponents with the brush of communism, terrorism, Zionism, atheism, or, in the case of Shiites, selling out to a foreign power (Iran). One of the ultra-insular regime's prized accusations is of trafficking in "imported ideas."
But none of the mud the Saudis have flung at al-Masari has stuck, because:
*He is a product of the Saudi establishment, a prosperous Sunni Muslim from the central Arabian heartland which produced the royal family itself. His father was a functionary at a mosque in the town of al-Kharj frequented by the late King Abdel Aziz.
*He holds a Ph.D. from Berkeley in physics, and is one of the well-educated, post-oil-boom technocrats who have been cheated by the old (royal) guard's lock on power, hence the poster boy of every college-educated Saudi. It is noteworthy that one of the CDLR's important backers is another scion of the "Saudi dream": the Khartoum-based Saudi Islamist, Usama Bin Laden, whose family of contractors is one of the kingdom's richest.
*Al-Masari has attacked nothing near and dear to any class of Saudi society, least of all to the fledgling intelligentsia he represents. On the contrary, every Saudi objects to the country's wealth being wasted (through royal corruption) and its dignity being defiled (through its U.S.-client status).
Indeed, the anti-Americanism of Maseri's CDLR rings true among many U.S.-educated Saudis, who view America as a sort of rent-an-ally and look down on almost everything in American society except the one thing the U.S. refuses to export to them -- democracy. In the 1980s, a popular Saudi underground audiotape, "America As I Saw It," luridly described the U.S. as a demonic haven of prostitution, homosexuality, and immorality in general. Late in the 1980s, a visiting American soccer team took the field in Riyadh and was enthusiastically booed by the entire stadium.
Saudi anti-Americanism -- indeed, all Saudi political discourse -- is inarticulate because it lacks public forums and the competition of ideas to grow and clarify. "There is a struggle going on in Saudi Arabia, and that struggle needs a mouthpiece, which is what we are," al-Masari said when his appeal against deportation was denied earlier this month. The message now coming through that mouthpiece is, for better or worse, an authentic Saudi one.
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