Saudi Arabia is governed by Sharia, a conservative interpretation of Islamic law. As such, many common western freedoms are not part of everyday Saudi society. But in early 2003, some Saudi newspapers began to discuss extending Saudis certain non-traditional rights. Some of the most progressive views put forward during that time, known as the “Riyadh spring,” were to be found inside the newspaper AL-WATAN, which is run and partly owned by Prince Bandar bin Khalid.
AL-WATAN, which means “The Homeland” in Arabic, became a forum for reformist issues during this time. Columnists began to discuss whether the teachings of strict Muslim scholars were granted too much credence within Saudi society, and they also began to question the suffocating authority of the mutaween, the nation’s religious police force. Prince Nayef, who effectively controls the press in Saudi Arabia, made no secret of his distaste for the new discussions taking place. After a week of intense debate following the bombing of three Riyadh housing complexes in May, an AL-WATAN journalist asked Prince Nayef if the attacks meant that the mutaween would be restructured. Prince Nayef replied coldly, “As a Saudi, you should be ashamed to be asking this question.” One week later, AL-WATAN’s editor in chief, Jamal Khashoggi, was fired and the “Riyadh spring” movement was silenced. Khashoggi is now the adviser to Prince Turki, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador in London.
Though Prince Bandar bin Khalid is too young to be a candidate for the throne, Bandar bin Khalid and princes like him may eventually rise to the forefront of the House of Saud as the ruling family struggles to maintain its grip on Saudi Arabia against a backdrop of domestic terrorism, a volatile economy, and social unrest.