“A river creates its own path.”
Saudi Activist Abdullah Al-Hamid: A Biography
It is impossible to discuss the populist movements towards reform and change in Saudi Arabia without mentioning “Abu Bilal,” also known as Abdullah Al-Hamid, the sexagenarian who spent the past twenty years striving to achieve the dream of human dignity. Al-Hamid made many sacrifices for his cause: He was imprisoned six times, lost his job as a university professor and went deaf in one ear.
Abdullah Hamid Al-Hamid is a Saudi reformer and one of the most prominent proponents of a transition towards a constitutional monarchy in Saudi Arabia. He has also been one of the most visible advocates of human rights in the Kingdom. On the morning of March 9th, 2013, Al-Hamid was detained for the seventh time in the past twenty years. Throughout his final case in court, he would repeat a familiar refrain: “A river creates its own path.” It is not possible to imprison all the activists in Saudi Arabia. They are like plants, sprouting anew every day. His last tweet to his online followers: “Prison is a victory for our project. From our cells, we will light candles.”
Thoughts and Beliefs
Al-Hamid has always believed in peaceful activism through petitions, raising awareness through social media and the establishment of human rights institutions (which are still banned in Saudi Arabia) with his fellow reformers. Eschewing violence, Al-Hamid has consistently adopted an approach that encourages both the state and its citizens to engage in dialogue. Along with six others, he co-founded the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights in 1993. In 2009, he co-founded The Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA) with ten other activists. In addition, Al-Hamid has drafted and signed numerous petitions calling for political and judicial reform in Saudi Arabia.
Al-Hamid holds an MA (awarded in 1974) and a Ph.D. (awarded in 1978) from the Al-Azhar University in Egypt in the field of literary criticism. He has authored fifteen books, as well as various essays and articles that propose reforms to Islamist formulations of basic political and judicial concepts. He has also written seven collections of poetry, with justice, prison and revolution as their central themes.
Early Life and Education
Al-Hamid was born in Buraidah, Saudi Arabia, the eldest of eleven siblings. As a child, he attended religious lessons, where he memorized the Quran. He went to a traditional secondary school, from which he graduated in 1967. Because of the scarcity of schoolteachers in Buraidah at the time, Al-Hamid taught at an elementary school while simultaneously attending high school. In the midst of that experience, Al-Hamid found himself in heated debates with his teachers about pedagogy and reforming school curricula. He had also begun to cultivate an interest in Islamist reform, Arabic literature and poetry.
Al-Hamid was a professor at Mohammed ibn Saud University, where he taught modern Arabic literature. He also acted as head of the Institute for Teaching Arabic Literature for six years (1979-1985). Prior to his political activism, he was active in the Saudi cultural scene, acting as a member of the board of the Riyadh Literary Club for several years, as well as participating in literary conferences both in Saudi Arabia and abroad.
The Reform Begins; the 90s
In 1993, in the aftermath of the Gulf War, Al-Hamid, along with other academics from diverse fields such as political science, literature and Islamic studies, formed a movement that called for human rights and political reform in Saudi Arabia. On June 15th, 1993, he was detained for the first time and spent several months on prison for his activism, which also cost him his position as a professor at Mohammad ibn Saud University. He was also banned from travel outside the Kingdom for five years.
Al-Hamid resumed his activism after being released from prison, and was detained twice in the next two years. Each of his stints in prison lasted for several months, but his time in prison did not deter him from continuing his activism.
A New Round
At the turn of the century, Al-Hamid and his fellow activists intensified their campaign towards transitioning the Kingdom to a constitutional monarchy. He drafted and signed several petitions addressed to the state, including A Vision for the Nation’s Present and Future in 2002, A Vision for Judiciary Independence in 2003 and A Call to the Leadership and the People: Constitutional Reform First in December of 2003, in which Al-Hamid, along with more than 100 activists, called for a transition towards a constitutional monarchy, as well as a separation of the three branches of government and an end to executive corruption. Later, many of these same activists issued a critique of the state-sponsored National Society for Human Rights (NSHR), which resulted in a fourth detainment for Al-Hamid and his fellow activists on March 16th, 2004. Under intense pressure from the Saudi government, most of these activists signed a pledge not to participate in any political activity without government approval in exchange for their release from prison. Only three activists refused to sign the pledge: Matrook Al-Faleh, Ali Al-Dumaini and Abdullah Al-Hamid. Their case came to be known in the Kingdom as the “Case of the Three Reformers.”
The three reformers were tried in court. Their case went on for ten months, in secret. Since the case was not open to the public, Al-Hamid and his two comrades opted for silence as a way of protesting the court’s lack of transparency. They also protested their denial of their rights. One court session was terminated after those in attendance started chanting in demand that the three reformers be cleared. The defense attorney, Abdulrahman Al-Lahim was detained for several months for his involvement with Al-Hamid, Al-Dumaini and Al-Falih, who were convicted and sentenced to seven, nine and six years in prison respectively. The King, however, issued a royal decree in August 2005 that pardoned them after a year and a half in prison.
Despite his extended time in prison, Al-Hamid continued his activism and called for peaceful demonstrations as a method of achieving political reform. Al-Hamid joined forces with activists with diverse political and religious backgrounds who shared his belief in political reform. One of the main movements that Al-Hamid spearheaded was one that demanded the end of arbitrary detention and the release of prisoners who were held without trial. These efforts landed Al-Hamid in prison for a fifth time in 2007. He was given a short reprieve and then returned to prison for a sixth time; he was charged with “instigating peaceful demonstrations” and given a six-month prison sentence.
ACPRA The Path to Civil and Political Rights
Upon release from prison, Al-Hamid co-founded the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA) with ten other activists in October of 2009. From 2009 to 2013, Al-Hamid and his fellow activists managed to raise human rights awareness in the Kingdom through peaceful activism. ACPRA utilized modern methods such as YouTube and social media to outline their political project, which emphasized the importance of drafting a constitution for Saudi Arabia that would ensure the rights and freedoms of citizens, as well as the establishment of an elected representative parliament and ending corruption. ACPRA also drew attention to the massive human rights violations in Saudi Arabia and demanded that the Minister of Interior, Prince Naif bin Abdulaziz be put on trial for systematic violation of human rights.
The state did not tolerate ACPRA’s activism, and put its two most visible co-founders, Mohammad Fahad Al-Qahtani and Abdullah Al-Hamid on trial in July of 2012. The two defendants insisted that citizens be allowed to witness their trial. Saudis, especially young people, discussed the ten court sessions in detail on Twitter. They discussed Al-Hamid’s testimony, in which he articulated the need to establish institutions of civil society in Saudi Arabia, the importance of reforming the structure of the state and ending absolute monarchy and executive corruption.
Al-Hamid was convicted and sentenced to eleven years in prison, coupled with a five-year travel ban upon release from prison. Al-Qahtani was sentenced to ten years in prison and a ten-year travel ban. Al-Hamid is currently serving his term at Hayer Prison in Riyadh. Al-Hamid’s imprisonment, however, has not diminished his iconic status as a reformer. He has become a symbol, invoked whenever young Saudis dream of reform.