“Ahmad” is a representative of the Socialist Labor Party in the Arabian Peninsula. MERIP interviewed him in February 1984.
What were the origins of your party?
Our party was founded in 1972, with ties to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. At that time the PFLP had close links with affiliates in many parts of the Arab world — in Syria, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia, as well as having its own presence within the Palestinian movement. But because of the difficult security situation we were not fully integrated into the PFLP organizational structure. At first, the party worked among intellectuals; later this was extended to students and workers. The conditions of our work were always secret, and we made it a principle that people could not belong to the party if they lived outside the country, except students, who had to be active outside.
Did you maintain organizational ties with the PFLP?
From 1975 onwards relations with the PFLP declined, and by 1978 they ceased. We began to develop relations with other branches of the movement. In 1981, when some of our cadres were outside, we established relations with other peninsula organizations, such as the Saudi Communist Party and the Popular Front in Bahrain.
How has your work inside the country evolved recently?
The party bases itself on Marxism-Lenism and has directed itself to the working class, the peasantry and the petty bourgeoisie. The party publication, al-Masira, is produced inside the country and appears irregularly. In April 1982, there was a major crackdown on the party — it was directed at religious elements and other patriotic elements in the country as well as ourselves. This attack hit the party hard, but it did not eradicate it. The regime came to know of our activities and went on the offensive. We also made some mistakes in regard to security. Now we are rebuilding our organization, and in January 1984 we established a new provisional leadership to run the party.
What are your major demands?
We have three: political liberties, a real nationalization of oil and the liquidation of the foreign military presence in our country.
You do not call for the liquidation of the Saudi regime?
This demand cannot be raised openly, but we do discuss it in our publications as a long-term aim. This regime cannot be overthrown by democratic means. It can only be ousted by organized armed struggle.
The impression one gets from outside is that the Saudi regime, although undemocratic and corrupt, is accepted by the mass of the population.
Most of those who go to Europe or to the US and talk about the country are from the bourgeoisie. They are not typical. There are many grievances in the country, but opposition cannot manifest itself because of fear. Do not forget that the motto of this regime is that it was established by the sword and will rule by the sword. The proof of this is demonstrated by the Mecca siege of 1979 and the uprising in Sharqiyya [the Eastern province].
The Saudi state was indeed established by conquest in the 1920s, and beneath the apparent unity of the country there remain wide regional diversities. How does the regional problem still manifest itself?
This was very important before the oil price rise of 1973. Up to that time, regional and tribal factors were influential. It was evident in regions like ‘Asir, Jizan and Najran, which were underprivileged, and there was resentment in the Hijaz. But the regions are more tied together now by common economic interests. Throughout the state, immigrants from abroad have made their fortune too. You even have people from Uzbekistan, in the Soviet Union, who have settled in the country. The only place where the regional problem is still alive is in Sharqiyya, where there is resentment against the regime because of the area’s working class and Shi‘i character. The Shi‘a are the most oppressed in Saudi Arabia.
What is your overall characterization of the oppressed groups?
First, there is discrimination against the Shi‘a as a whole. Secondly, the peasants in the Sharqiyya and southern provinces are oppressed. The working class enjoys a better standard of living than the peasantry, and we cannot speak of exploitation of them in a purely economic sense. Politically, it is a different story: the working class enjoys no legal rights or means of expression.
To what extent have there been strikes in recent years?
The 1979 events in Sharqiyya were the most important recent case of this. These events demonstrated the inefficiency of the Saudi army and of the Royal Guards. We hear a lot about the arms supplied by the US, but it was evident that many of the arms had been stored by the US military out of reach of the Saudis.
What is the level of repression? What about political prisoners?
The last judicial executions were in 1969, apart from those executed after the Mecca seizure of 1979. There have been some other deaths under torture. Most of the political prisoners are from religious organizations. In the 1960s and early 1970s, we used to hear of the activities of the People’s Democratic Party. Its leader, Nasir Sa‘id, was kidnapped and apparently killed in Beirut in 1981.
What is the condition of this party now?
We are not aware of its presence. It was badly hit in the repression of 1969 and further weakened by the amnesty of 1975. Some of its members joined our party. The kidnapping of Nasir Sa‘id was carried out by Saudi intelligence in collaboration with Abu Za‘im, the head of Group 17, the intelligence branch of Fatah. Nasir Sa‘id was a well-known labor leader and had been active from the 1950s. What he said had an impact inside Saudi Arabia. His was the only major voice of opposition outside the country, and he was very active in discrediting the regime, especially after the 1979 Mecca events.
The mainstay of the regime still appears to be the armed forces, and the most likely source of opposition would seem to be from within their ranks. What is known about their composition?
There are two main structures — the army itself and the National Guard, known to us as al-jaysh al-hafi, the barefoot army. There are also two other special units — al-haras al-malaki, the royal bodyguard, and al-haras al-hudud, the border guards. The National Guard comes from tribes loyal to Al Sa‘ud. They are recruited as boys and indoctrinated in special camps. Among the chief tribes which they come from are Qamad, Zahran, Zahtan, ‘Utayba and Sudayri. The Shi‘a are excluded from any security positions and even from any vital positions in the civil service. One exception is Jamil al-Hishi, director of the Jubayl and Yanbu‘ industrial projects. The security situation is not so controlled in the army, and you find cases of arrests and dismissals there. This is why, when there is a problem, the regime does not depend on it to the same extent.
There were reports of a military uprising in 1982. Is there any truth in these?
The rumors concerned a mutiny in the army led by the governor of the Tabuz region, ‘Abd al-Majid bin ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, a half-brother of King Fahd who was educated in the US. We cannot confirm or deny these reports.
What about the activity of the Islamic groups?
It seems that there are two who have some countrywide activity. One is a pro-Iranian, Shi‘i group known as the Organization of the Islamic Revolution for the Liberation of the Arabian Peninsula. The other is the group that seized the mosque in 1979, the salafis. Despite the executions of its members, the salafis continue their activities, and in 1983 a group of them were arrested while training with arms in ‘Asir.
Do you have any sense of divisions inside the royal family?
There are currents rather than divisions, as between Fahd and ‘Abdallah. Sometimes their differences come to the surface. ‘Abdallah is not so absolutely pro-American as Fahd. But we are not betting on these — they are differences within the same camp.
How overt is the US military presence in the country?
After the 1979 events, US advisers took a more open part in the repression. They can be seen in special hotels reserved for them, and in the installations where the AWACS planes operate. The US presence is felt most in Sharqiyya, in Ha’il and in the south.
What is your evaluation of Saudi policy toward the PDRY?
Diplomatic relations were established in 1976, but relations as a whole are still quite cool. The discovery in 1982 of a Saudi intelligence and sabotage plot in the PDRY shows what the regime’s designs are. There are still camps at Ta’if for training anti-PDRY personnel. But the Saudi army is not able to take on the PDRY’s armed forces without US backing.
What has been the reaction of the Saudi Arabian population to the Iranian revolution?
Iran is still popular among the Shi‘a, but especially since the Iran-Iraq war its popularity has declined among the population as a whole.