- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 20, 2006

CAIRO — A Saudi opposition group is set to breathe new life into the kingdom’s dormant political reform movement. But in a sign of changing alliances, its founder hopes for a boost from public anger over government criticism of Hezbollah.

Founded in Paris by the exiled son of the last ruler of part of present-day Saudi Arabia, the Saudi Democratic Opposition Front claims about 2,000 members, mostly in Saudi Arabia.

It aims to provide an umbrella network for secular and Islamist activists both inside and outside the country who are campaigning for the overthrow of the al-Saud ruling family.

“We have founded the Saudi Democratic Opposition Front to push for 100 percent democracy in the country,” said Talal Mohammed Al-Rasheed, the son of the last ruler of the independent Rashidi emirate, which reigned in Saudi Arabia’s northwestern region of Hail from 1835 to 1921.

“If the al-Saud [family] introduce genuine democracy, we will support them. But if they do not, we will push by all peaceful means to make them give up their power,” said Mr. Al-Rasheed, 72, who still likes to be addressed as Prince Talal.

By founding the party now, he said in a telephone interview from Paris, he hopes to capitalize on a huge backlash against the ruling family inside the kingdom for its condemnation of Hezbollah at the start of the war with Israel.

Mr. Al-Rasheed said he shares that outrage. “When the government should have been saluting the members of Hezbollah for sacrificing their lives, they threw insults at them,” he said.

Mr. Al-Rasheed said his opposition group would start a satellite television channel within three months. It will broadcast from a European country and call on ordinary Saudis “to rise up against the tyrants and usurpers plundering public funds.”

His family, which was ousted by the al-Saud ruling family during its struggle to unite Saudi Arabia in the early 20th century, is a branch of the Shammar tribal confederation, whose members number in the hundreds of thousands. Mr. Al-Rasheed said the rank and file of the tribal confederation is largely backing his movement.

He said he waited until he reached his 70s to officially found the party to dispel any doubts that he wanted to return to Saudi Arabia as a king or any other kind of leader. “I have no interest in any of that,” he said. “The past is the past. I am doing this for all Saudis, not for my own family or for myself.”

Ali Al-Ahmed, a prominent Saudi Shi’ite dissident and director of the Washington-based Institute for Gulf Affairs, said the movement could shake up the kingdom’s politics.

“This new opposition group has the potential to be the most successful in the history of Saudi Arabia, if it has a dedicated, unselfish leadership and a clear, well-planned strategy,” he said. “It has a prestigious leader in Mr. Al-Rasheed, and he could get support from many people from all levels of Saudi society,” he said.

Mr. Al-Rasheed said his group would coordinate its activities with other opponents of the Saudi government at home and abroad, and would make no distinction between Shi’ite and Sunni, or liberal and Islamist, as long as their goal was genuine popular democracy.

The al-Saud ruling family holds a monopoly on governing and has introduced only limited reforms in recent years.

Earlier this month, Mr. Al-Rasheed gave an hourlong interview to the Paris bureau chief of the Pan-Arab, Qatar-based Al Jazeera satellite news network. After announcing the formation of his party and advertising the forthcoming interview with Mr. Al-Rasheed on its news bar at the bottom of the screen, Al Jazeera suddenly removed the information and the interview was spiked.

“My sources told me that after they saw the information on Al Jazeera’s news ticker, the Saudi government called the station more than five times in one hour, pleading with them not to air it,” Mr. Al-Rasheed said, adding that Al Jazeera had “obviously caved in to the pressure.”

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