Cairo: In a step likely to anger Saudi Arabia's royal family, a prominent Saudi prince said he plans to form a political party in a country that bans such groups, and that he will invite jailed reformists to join it.
Prince Talal Bin Abdul Aziz, a brother of King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz and the father of Saudi Arabia's richest private business tycoon, also criticised, in an interview on Monday, what he termed an alleged monopoly on Saudi power by one faction within the Saudi royal family. He did not name members of the faction.
Such a call for reform by someone inside the royal family is rare. Prince Talal holds no government post and is considered something of an outsider within the royal family, because of his past pushes for reform dating back decades, which forced him into exile briefly in the 1960s.
But Prince Talal also is believed personally close to and a confidante of the current king, who he praised as a reformer who faces 'obstacles before him.' Saudi officials had no immediate comment.
In the interview, which was conducted at a location outside Saudi Arabia, Prince Talal also criticised the jailing of pro-reform advocates within the kingdom, and said they are welcome to join his party when it is established.
"I know this is not an easy thing to do, and we have a lot of obstacles ahead of us, but we have to start forming this party," he said.
He provided few details, but said he wants the party to break a power monopoly by some members of the family who have been "holding executive power for some 70 years." "This is a group which is not only blocking reform, but is also trying to eliminate others and take everything in its hand," he said. "We, in particular the sons of Abdul Aziz, should take part, both in expressing opinions and in decision-making."
Prince Talal said the party he intends to form should also be a platform to allow all Saudis, including non-royals, to express their views and share decision-making powers. He pointed to neighbouring Gulf nations that have already opened up their conservative political systems and held elections for legislatures. "Saudis are asking why these small countries have followed this direction and not we?" he said.
Among reforms Prince Talal has suggested in the past are an elected assembly to enact legislation, question officials and protect public wealth. He also, in the interview, called on the kingdom's powerful religious establishment to make changes, including on women's rights.
"We have signed international conventions, such on women's rights, and we should respect them," he said.
The group of Saudi activists that Talal cited have been in jail for months for advocating reform. The prince called them "prisoners of conscience not criminals. They should be either tried in an independent court or set free." Talal, who is in his 70s, fled to Egypt in 1962 because of his ideas, which he insists do not contradict Islam or jeopardise the kingdom's Islamic credentials.
But he was allowed to return in 1964 after reconciling with Faisal and now heads a charity, the Arab Gulf Programme for United Nations Development Organizations. He is the father of billionaire businessman Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal, who Forbes ranks as the world's 13th richest person.
On one particularly sensitive issue, Prince Talal called for an independent British-Saudi committee to probe allegations that some Saudi royal family members have received kickbacks from oil and arms deals.
"We, in particular the sons of Abdul Aziz, should take part, both in expressing opinions and in decision-making."
Activist faces trial over women's protest
A well-known Saudi reform activist and his brother have been ordered to appear in court on charges including inciting protests by women, a colleague said yesterday.
Abdullah Al Hamed and his brother Eisa are expected to appear in a criminal court in Buraida over an incident in July where the wives of Saudi men in indefinite detention staged a protest.
"They were ordered three days ago to appear in court on charges of provoking women to stage a sit-in and trying to break a security cordon," said Khalid Al Omair, legal representative for the two men.