Exiled Saudi Arabian dissidents launched a party they hope will dethrone Mohammed bin Salman
- Saudi dissidents have launched a mission to spark the transition to democracy and oust de-facto leader Mohammed bin Salman.
- The National Assembly Party launched from London on Wednesday. It is the first formalized political opposition during King Salman's rule.
- Political parties are banned in Saudi Arabia, and sedition or criticism of the king merits long jail terms.
- Over the last 50 years various political groups have tried to challenge the monarch. Many of those involved were imprisoned.
- Party spokeswoman Madawi al-Rasheed told Business Insider: "Six people announced their names knowing that their families in Saudi Arabia will be targeted and their lives might be in danger, including my life."
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
A group of leading Saudi experts and dissidents in exile have launched a political party that they hope will spark a transition to democracy and ultimately unseat Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, ruled exclusively by members of the al-Saud family since 1932.
The self-styled reformer crown prince, known as MBS, and his elderly father King Salman are the current heads of state.
But the country's Basic Law bans political parties. The new National Assembly Party, launched at a safe distance in London on Wednesday, is the first formal opposition under King Salman's rule.
"This is an initiative that builds on previous Saudi attempts to insert political and civil rights in government and allow people to experience democratic institutions," said Madawi al-Rasheed, the party spokeswoman, in an interview with Business Insider.
Al-Rasheed is a Saudi expert based at the London School of Economics.
The other founding members are the London-based activist Yahya Asiri, the researcher Saeed bin Nasser al-Ghamdi, the US-based campaigner Abdullah al-Awda, and the Canada-based social media personality Omar Abdulaziz.
"Six people announced their names knowing that their families in Saudi Arabia will be targeted and their lives might be in danger, including my life, as the Saudi regime is capable of reaching people abroad," al-Rasheed said.
"The murder of [Jamal] Khashoggi is an example of that, and the surveillance, hacking of phones, and the verbal threatening of many, many activists."
"This is a very dangerous thing"
But the party says much is still to be done.
"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," the party said in its launch statement.
Al-Rasheed said the party is looking to new members to swell its ranks both in Saudi Arabia and abroad, but that it is a dangerous game.
"It's not like we're going to give people IDs saying 'you're a member of this party.' Remember, this is a very dangerous thing: political parties are banned in Saudi Arabia."
The group launched on Wednesday, and promptly drew the wrath of Saudi bot accounts on social media. "We have been bombarded with attacks," al-Rasheed said.
"It's expected. The fact that we had to launch this party abroad is telling."
"We have no institutions, we have no say in what happens."
The launch day was also Saudi Arabia's national day, but the timing is also notable because the health of King Salman is in question.
The 84-year-old underwent gall bladder surgery in July 2020 and has left the day-to-day running of Saudi Arabia to Crown Prince Mohammed since 2017.
Upon Salman's death, Crown Prince Mohammed is poised to ascend to the throne.
The rubber-stamp approval of the Allegiance Commission, a group of 34 senior princes tasked with ushering in each new ruler, is in practice only a formality.
But the party say the transition could throw Saudi Arabia into chaos that citizens will pay for.
"We all know that MBS doesn't have the consensus of the Royal Family to become King. He has silenced and marginalized his own relatives — let alone society — and we worry about power struggle at the top level when King Salman dies, and society will pay a high price for that," al-Rasheed told Business Insider.
"It's a power struggle between royalty and it has nothing to do with society. This is typical of a totalitarian system, if you can imagine the Soviet Union under Stalin … they have purges against each other."
"So we are trying to create an alternative to this regime by adopting ideas that are actually proven to be better than the absolutely monarchy that we have."
"We have no institutions, we have no say in what happens, and we can't chose who is the best person."
al-Rasheed said that she would like to see a referendum in Saudi Arabia that asks the people how they want to be governed.
"We do not want to impose on people a vision of how the political system works. That should be the outcome of a general vote. We are not really concerned with how the state will look, we are concerned with the principles and institutions that allow people to have a say in how they are governed."
Business Insider contacted the Saudi embassy in London for comment on the party's formation, but is yet to receive a response.
Over the decades, formal political opposition to the monarchy in Saudi Arabia has been rare.
The 1960s and 1970s saw a large anti-nationalist movement, with political parties formed in Beirut, Lebanon, to stay beyond the reach of the Saudi government.
"There has been a tradition in Saudi Arabia even of political parties. That has disappeared. Since the 1970s there hasn't been any margin of freedom that allows political action to take place at the level of society," al-Rasheed told Business Insider.
"In the last five years it has become even worse."
In 1992, a group of Saudi experts and junior Sunni Muslim clerics formed a political group called the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights. Following pressure from the Saudi state they fled to London in 1994, whereupon the British government tried unsuccessfully to deport them back to Saudi Arabia.
In 2011, the Arab Spring protest movement swept across the Middle East and North Africa, but didn't take root in Saudi Arabia.
The ruler at the time, King Abdullah, the brother of King Salman who died in 2015, swiftly approved a $130 billion cash injection to increase salaries, line the pockets of religious institutions, and build new homes.
One group of clerics and self-professed intellectuals launched Islamic Umma, a political party seeking to challenge King Abdullah, but the attempt quickly fizzled out.
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