Top Saudi Cleric Demands Reforms, Backs Protesters


CAIRO: An influential Saudi cleric has urged the royal family to initiate reform or risk public anger and the possible disintegration of the kingdom, in a stark public warning.

In an open letter posted on his Facebook and Twitter sites, Shaikh Salman Al Odah warned the ruling family against ignoring protests and what they “might lead to”. He was referring to public sit-ins and small, but repeated protests by families of prisoners — in security-related cases — held for years without trial. In February the families burnt photographs of Mohammad Bin Naif, the interior minister.

“How could a country, which runs according to personal connections instead of institutions, face any challenges?’’ he wrote. “People are wondering, especially young people, what the communication channels between them and the state are.’’

The comments were apparently triggered by the prison sentences handed down last week to two outspoken rights activists, Mohammad Fahd Al Qah’tani and Abdullah Al Hamed, the co-founders of the banned Civil and Political Rights Association. Responding to the letter on Sunday, Tariq Al Homayed, editor of the semi-official Asharq Alawsat newspaper, said: “It is strange that Al Odah speaks about Saudi Arabia as if the country is a volatile powder keg, whereas the truth is that his open letter is shameful, almost like blackmail, and full of his bloated ego.”

Al Odah, who wields a great deal of influence over young people because of his moderate views, called for the activists’ release and tweeted that imprisoning someone for a cause generated sympathy for such causes. During the Arab uprisings Al Odah voiced his support for the popular protests.

He was later banned from travelling and his television show on the Saudi-owned MBC was taken off air.

“People here, like people all over the world, have aspirations and hopes and they won’t keep quiet when part or all of their rights are confiscated,” Al Odah wrote in the online letter. “When people lose hope anything is possible. The rising anger causes legitimate, political and social leadership to lose control and the street takes the leadership instead.”

His words triggered an outpouring of online support, with thousands of Saudi users, tweeting under the hashtag “Al Odah’s letter represents me”. Another smaller group started an anti-Al Odah hashtag called “Al Odah’s letter does not represent me”. Agencies

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