- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 16, 2008

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — One day before President Bush arrived here to meet King Abdullah, he spoke out against Middle Eastern governments that crush dissent and punish political or religious speech.

“You cannot expect people to believe in the promise of a better future when they are jailed for peacefully petitioning their government,” Mr. Bush said Sunday during a speech in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates.

“You cannot stand up a modern and confident nation when you do not allow people to voice their legitimate criticisms,” he said.

But when Mr. Bush arrived Saudi Arabia on Monday, he stepped into a kingdom where conversion from Islam is punished by beheading and where expressing one’s views on an Internet blog can result in imprisonment.

Popular Saudi blogger Ahmed Fouad al-Farhan has been in jail for more than a month for criticizing the government. Saudi police arrested the 32-year-old husband and father of two on Dec. 10 at his office, took him home to get his computer and then locked him up.

While bloggers have been imprisoned in Egypt — Mr. Bush’s next stop — as well as in Libya, China and Tunisia, Mr. al-Farhan is the first Saudi blogger to be imprisoned.

A Saudi official said in December that Mr. al-Farhan was detained for “violating rules not related to state security.”

Ahmed al-Omran, a 23-year-old Saudi blogger and pharmacology student, called the official explanation “gibberish” in a Jan. 9 letter to Mr. al-Farhan posted on Mr. al-Omran’s blog, saudijeans.org.

“I really don’t know what kind of law you violated by merely exercising your God-given right of free speech, and I don’t know when calling for freedom, justice, peace and moderation has become a crime,” Mr. al-Omran wrote.

But in a phone interview, Mr. al-Omran told The Washington Times that he did not see Mr. al-Farhan’s imprisonment as a step backward for Saudi Arabia’s human rights environment.

“I think the king is committed to reform, and the country is changing, but every now and then, you have incident like this. It’s not a general trend,” he said.

A senior Bush administration official appeared to echo those thoughts when Mr. Bush spoke in Abu Dhabi, saying that Mr. Bush “views King Abdullah as really a remarkable figure.”

“It’s a very conservative society, as you know. [King Abdullah] has started some steps in movements towards reform,” the senior official said. “It is moving at a pace that King Abdullah believes is appropriate to that society.”

Carol Fleming, a former U.S. diplomat who in 2002 married a Saudi national and moved to Riyadh in 2006, blogs about life in the Saudi capital at delhi4cats.wordpress.com. In a post yesterday, she described how Saudi public places must shut down five times a day, every day, for prayers.

“The shops close, the banks close, the schools have breaks for prayer, the hospitals have breaks for prayer, gas stations close, all shops in the malls will close, restaurants and grocery stores will shut down too,” Mrs. Fleming wrote.

Nonetheless, Mrs. Fleming, in an e-mail, said Mr. al-Farhan’s imprisonment was only “a hiccup … in regards to Saudi Arabia and its forward reform efforts.”

Blogging and increasing Internet access in Saudi Arabia, she said, are making a “substantial impact” in opening up Saudi society.

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