Abdullah Alaoudh is a senior fellow in the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University.
Abdullah al-Hamid, Saudi Arabia’s most prominent intellectual and activist, is gone.
Two weeks ago, al-Hamid, collapsed and slipped into a coma in prison. For weeks, he had been denied a long-overdue cardiac catheterization, according to his family. After collapsing, al-Hamid was left for hours on the prison floor before being taken to the intensive care unit at Al Shumaisi hospital in Riyadh, according to eyewitnesses. He died Wednesday. The Saudi state should be held responsible for al-Hamid’s slow death.
Al-Hamid, 69, was undisputedly the most prominent reformist in Saudi Arabia. He was a veteran activist and one of the leading architects of a Saudi-led movement demanding the formation of a constitution and a transition toward democracy. Al-Hamid was detained by Saudi authorities on multiple occasions, the first time in 1993, and dismissed from several jobs. He was last arrested on March 9, 2013, sentenced to 11 years in prison and spent the last years of his life confined to four walls.
Al-Hamid fought for a free Saudi Arabia. In 2003, along with several leading Saudi intellectuals and activists, he signed the “Vision of the Nation’s Present and Future” petition, which called for basic rights and political reforms, such as elections, the separation of powers and an end to arbitrary detentions. As the petition circulated, al-Hamid, along with others, gathered to meet with then-Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, who claimed to share their views and said to them, “Your vision is my vision, and your project is mine.” But years passed, and King Abdullah died without having fulfilled his promises to al-Hamid and his colleagues.
In 2009, despite having been detained six times at that point, al-Hamid, along with others, established the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), the leading civil society institution in the kingdom. ACPRA was a political venture that aimed to do what the Saudi state failed to achieve for a long time: representation, diversity, democracy and freedom. In many ways, it was the beginning of Saudi Arabia’s Arab Spring. Unlike many of the political conversations unfolding in Saudi Arabia, ACPRA transcended ideological, political and sectarian differences and achieved wide popularity among different sectors of society. In 2011, an unprecedented number of Saudi citizens signed the landmark petition “Toward a State of Rights and Institutions,” which called for democratic values and an expansion of rights and freedoms. The petition, like ACPRA, had a strong potential to change the course of political reform within the kingdom.
Al-Hamid was particularly influential and disruptive to the fabric of the corruption within the Saudi monarchy. In his many books, he reinterpreted the traditional basis for today’s Islamic political theory and upended the ideological basis used by Saudi Arabia’s hard-line state-sponsored clerics to justify absolute authority and authoritarian regimes. Al-Hamid also reinterpreted the Islamic contract, known as al-bay’a, to emphasize the need for bilateral consent for any contract to be considered valid. Under this interpretation, the people’s consent would be a necessary element for any political process to be considered valid. What made al-Hamid so effective was that he established a discourse from within Saudi Arabia that did not alienate the political traditions or dismiss the local context but rather reinterpreted them in a way that involved the public in decision-making, paving the way for democracy and basic freedoms and liberties.
Al-Hamid’s ideas were seen by the state as an existential threat to the Saudi monarchy. In an attempt to silence al-Hamid and his colleagues who called for democracy, the Saudi state banned ACPRA, arrested its founding members and froze their assets.
Before journalist Jamal Khashoggi was brutally killed in 2018 by the Saudi government in a Turkish consulate, he shared a story with his audience about the royal family’s response to the circulating petitions. At the request of King Abdullah, a committee of influential royals was formed to study the appropriate response to the Arab Spring that Saudi Arabia should take, and how the kingdom could prevent the upheavals that were rocking neighboring countries. With the exception of then-Prince Salman and Prince Khalid al-Faisal, the committee concluded that there should be public elections, democratic mechanisms and more freedoms. However, that process was abruptly put on hold when King Salman ascended to the throne in 2015 and named his son, Mohammed bin Salman, as crown prince. MBS, as he is known, is now the de-facto absolute ruler of Saudi Arabia, dashing hopes for democratic progress in Saudi Arabia.
In one of my last conversations with Jamal, he described al-Hamid as the “Saudi Mandela” and lamented the fact that his case did not receive the attention or global outrage that it deserves. Like Nelson Mandela, whose words and movements shattered an apartheid regime, al-Hamid’s democratic legacy will live on in Saudi Arabia.