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'An unprecedented gathering': Saudi activists unite in US to discuss ending kingdom's autocracy

The Quest for Democracy in Saudi Arabia conference brought together activists and policymakers from across the world
Lina al-Hathloul, head of advocacy at ALQST, speaks during the Quest for Democracy Conference at the National Harbor, Maryland on 2 May 2024.
Lina al-Hathloul, head of advocacy at ALQST, speaks during the Quest for Democracy conference overlooking National Harbor in Maryland, on 2 May 2024 (X/Freedom Forward)

Inside a ballroom at the Gaylord Convention Center overlooking the National Harbor outside of Washington DC, Saudi dissidents and activists from all over the diaspora came together for an in-person conference to discuss the elusive prospects of a representative government in Saudi Arabia chosen by its citizens.

The Quest for Democracy in Saudi Arabia conference on Thursday was the culmination of a year-long organising effort by several organisations under the banner of the "People's Vision", with the goal of setting a path toward ending authoritarian rule in the country.

"It is an unprecedented gathering of experts, activists, policymakers, international organisations, and think tank stakeholders. All in order to discuss one topic: authoritarianism in Saudi Arabia," Abdullah Alaoudh, director for countering authoritarianism at the Middle East Democracy Center in Washington DC, and an organiser of the conference, told Middle East Eye.

"This gathering helps to assure a new phase of our work on countering the authoritarian practices of the Saudi government."

Lina al-Hathloul, a leading Saudi women's rights activist and sister of the formerly imprisoned Loujain al-Hathloul, said that the idea for the conference came after the launch of the "People's Vision", an initiative and set of policy reforms created by Saudi activists, academics and intellectuals, and addressed in response to the Vision 2030 agenda put forward by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

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"We're gathered with more and more Saudi activists and people who are fed up with the government's policies, or those who have fled the country and they don't consider themselves as dissidents, but who want to change the country for the better," Hathloul, who is also the head of monitoring and advocacy for the rights group ALQST, told MEE.

"At this conference, we're working towards gathering people to discuss issues that we think are of the utmost importance, and that are linked to the People's Vision."

The conference, described by organisers and participants alike as a historic gathering, saw attendees from not only the Saudi diaspora, but also activists and politicians from Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, and Tunisia.

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Moncef Marzouki, the former president of Tunisia who now has an arrest warrant out for him by the current government of Kais Saied, gave an address at the conference, in which he chose to speak in Arabic to better connect with the Saudi people attending in person and online.

"These pains and sufferings will continue, but we will not stop here. We'll continue to dream, and hopefully, we will reach our goals," Marzouki said.

Outside of the in-person attendees, more than 59,000 people tuned into the conference's live stream.

"The diverse attendance here shows that we are broadening our coalition in order to push for the agenda of the people's vision for Saudi Arabia, which includes democracy, human rights, and basic liberties," said Alaoudh.

Saudi crackdown

Since coming to power in 2017, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has launched a crackdown on political dissidents, human rights advocates, and critics of the government.

The attention towards the campaign of repression reached a climax when Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi columnist for the Washington Post and Middle East Eye, was murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Turkey on 2 October 2018.

There was worldwide outrage over the murder, and though the crown prince denied responsibility for the murder, the Biden administration in 2021 released an intelligence memo stating that the killing could not have taken place without the crown prince knowing.

Soon after, MEE reported in October 2018 on the Tiger Squad, a death squad operating under the guidance and supervision of the crown prince. It was this unit that tortured, murdered and dismembered Khashoggi, according to a Saudi source with intimate knowledge of the country's intelligence services.

'It says a lot about the state of our countries as a whole that we're all struggling the same struggle'

- Lina al-Hathloul

Years later in 2020, Saad al-Jabri, a former top Saudi intelligence official, filed a lawsuit in Washington accusing the Saudi government of using the tiger squad to try and assassinate him while he was in Canada.

In 2024, the outrage in the US over the killing of Khashoggi has largely subsided. And while US President Biden had previously called Saudi Arabia a "pariah", Washington and Riyadh are now reportedly working to secure a security pact. And Biden is actively trying to get Saudi Arabia to normalise relations with Israel.

All the while, the repression of Saudi dissidents - as well as dissidents from other countries like Egypt - continues both domestically and abroad.

A report last year found that two-thirds of the people interviewed with personal or professional ties to Egypt and Saudi Arabia have been subjected to acts of repression on US soil.

Examples of this transnational repression include denials of legal documents, surveillance, and physical intimidation, among other methods.

Thursday's conference ushered in a sense of camaraderie among many of the participants who themselves are dissidents and have imprisoned relatives at home in Saudi Arabia or other Arab countries.

"It says a lot about the state of our countries as a whole that we're all struggling the same struggle, but it also means that we finally came to the conclusion as Arab peoples that our struggle is shared and that we should be standing in solidarity together," Hathloul said.

"One does not go without the other. If one falls, the other will fall. And if one rises, the other will rise as well."

Palestine and Gaza

While the conference largely focused on the most pertinent issues facing the ongoing repression of activists and critics inside Saudi Arabia, a common theme throughout the conference was the Palestinian people in Gaza.

Throughout the conference, speakers noted how the plight of the Palestinians in Gaza - who are facing what legal experts, rights groups, and countries say is a genocide orchestrated by Israel - has united people all across the world in solidarity with Palestine.

At the same time, there has been a push by countries in the Middle East to punish individuals who protest or speak out in support of Palestine. Scores of people have been arrested in Jordan, Egypt, and also in Saudi Arabia.

A Bloomberg report published on Thursday ahead of the conference said that the Saudi government had stepped up the arrests of people who have spoken up against Israel online, including some as young as 10 years old.

"They fear the mobilising potential of Palestinian liberation," Jon Hoffman, a research fellow in defence and foreign policy at the Cato Institute, said during a panel discussion at the conference.

"We've seen thousands of arrests from Egypt to Kuwait to Jordan, to the UAE to Bahrain in the wake of October 7th," he added, referring to the Hamas-led attacks on Israel, which led to Israel's full-blown war on Gaza.

Alaoudh said that while the conference was an important milestone in the pursuit of a Saudi Arabia that is governed by its citizens, there is still a long way to go.

He pointed to an exhibit outside the ballroom, which traced the different movements calling for reform in the kingdom, which dates back to the 1950s when there was a labour movement at Saudi Aramco that demanded increased worker's rights.

"Part of what the dictators of the past and those in the present do is they tighten their grip on society, thinking that they can silence you, intimidate you, and stop you from organising," Alaoudh said.

"So by thinking long-term, and also focusing on staying out of prison, we can continue working towards this project pushing for democracy in the country."

Alaoudh said that if the end goal of a democratic Saudi Arabia is achieved, "we will solve everything else, including arrests, civil society crackdowns, and all of these techniques the Saudi government has embarked on since MBS came to power".

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