Karen Elliott House, a former publisher of the Wall Street Journal, is most recently the author of “On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines — and Future.”
The 10-year prison sentences a Saudi court handed down last weekend are more significant than the sad fate of two moderate political activists who persisted in calling for a constitutional monarchy and respect for human rights. The saga is a microcosm of the political dilemma facing the House of Saud and, by extension, a challenge to U.S. policy, which from one administration to the next supports the regime while remaining silent about Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses.
The two dissidents, Mohammad Fahad al-Qahtani and Abdullah al-Hamid, were accused of, among other things, sedition, providing inaccurate information to the foreign media and founding an unlicensed human rights organization, the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (known as ACPRA). Saudi Arabia permits no civil society or political organizations. But Qahtani, a chubby, cherub-faced man in his mid-40s, determined long ago that he would seek to change the kingdom. In 2009 he told me that he would “challenge and change the system legally,” so that his young children would live in a freer society.