Prominent Saudi Cleric Calls on Government to Reform Or Risk the Wrath of People

A prominent Saudi preacher called on the government to initiate reforms and release political prisoners or risk facing popular anger that will drive people to the streets. In an open letter published online Friday night, Sheikh Salman al-Odah said that security concerns have dominated most state activities in recent years and warned that such handling of issues would have disastrous consequences.

“People here, like people around the world, have demands, longings and rights, and they will not remain silent forever when they are denied all or some of them,” al-Odah said. “When one becomes hopeless, you can expect anything from them.”

Al-Odah is currently one of the most popular clerics in the country. He was detained in the mid-1990s when he helped mobilize an Islamist opposition against the government and remained in prison until 1999. After his release, his views have become more moderate, a shift that helped attract a large following of youth in Saudi Arabia. He used to have a weekly television show broadcasted by the MBC network, but his show was terminated after he expressed views supportive of the Arab uprisings. Even without his TV show, he still has a wide reach thanks to his active online presence. His open letter was first published on Twitter, and the sites hosting the full text of the letter experienced problems staying accessible presumably due to the high traffic.

“More than 5,000 people are reading Sheikh Salman al-Odah’s letter at the same moment,” said Saleh al-Zaid, founder of the website TwitMail where the cleric initially published his letter. The site struggled to remain up in the few hours following the letter release, and the high demanded reportedly brought it down more three times in less than one hour. The letter also sparked a big debate on Twitter, where supporters and opponents of the cleric offered their take on its content.

Al-Odah said he decided to publish the letter after he sensed deep anger shared by many people who, according to him, represent different segments of society and hail from different regions in the kingdom. “As rage escalates, religious, political and social symbols lose their value,” he said. “Leadership becomes in the hands of the street.”

The 57-year-old cleric dedicate a large part of his letter to the grievance of prisoners and their families, an issue that has become a hot button in the country as these families have taken to the streets in recent months to protest their prolonged detention. In late February, a group of women and children staged a protest in the central city Buraida to demand the release of their relatives. During the protest, they burned photos of the Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Naif and demand his resignation. Al-Odah condemned the lengthy detention of prisoners and the abuse they face inside prisons. “When a policeman abuses a prisoner, it is a gamble of the nation’s future,” he said, calling on the government to immediately either put the prisoners to trial or release them immediately.

Al-Odah said the people are worried about the future and must be reassured by the government that their country can face the upcoming challenges. “How is it possible for a country that is run by personal connections and not institutions to face challenges?” he asked. “People are wondering, especially the youth, what are the communication channels between them and the state?”