Saudi dissidents exiled in countries including Britain and the US announce the launch of the National Assembly Party, the first organised political resistance under King Salman's rule.
A group of Saudi dissidents, most of them in exile, has announced the formation of a party to push for political reform in Saudi Arabia in defiance of de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (or MBS), who has moved to crush any dissent.
The National Assembly Party (NAAS) declaration called for an elected parliament and constitutional safeguards to ensure separation of the legislative, judicial, and executive branches.
"The timing is very important ... the climate of repression is only increasing," party member and academic Madawi al Rasheed told Reuters news agency on Wednesday.
She said NAAS would work with international organisations like the United Nations and human rights groups, without agitating for protests in the kingdom.
NAAS trying 'to save our country'
Party members include Yahya Assiri, head of UK-based Saudi rights group ALQST, Abdullah al Awdah, son of jailed preacher Salman al Awdah, prominent scholar Saeed bin Nasser al Ghamdi and Shia activist Ahmed al Mshikhs.
Abdullah al Awdah told Reuters news agency that NAAS aimed to create a national movement by working with "everybody from inside and outside the royal family."
"We are announcing the launch of this party at a critical moment to try to save our country ... to institute a democratic future and to respond to our people's aspirations," Assiri, the party's general secretary, told AFP news agency.
Assiri, a former Royal Saudi Air Force officer, founded the London-based human rights organisation ALQST.
Challenge to absolute monarchy
The world's top oil exporter and US ally is an absolute monarchy without an elected parliament or political parties. Past attempts to organise politically in the Gulf state in 2007 and 2011 were suppressed and members arrested.
The Saudi government communications office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Saudi authorities have repeatedly denied allegations by human rights groups that they perpetrate abuses.
King Salman, who had surgery in July, has delegated most responsibilities to his 34-year-old son and heir, who became crown prince in a 2017 palace coup and consolidated power.
MBS was initially hailed at home and abroad for bold reforms to open up the kingdom and diversify its economy, but his image in the West was tarnished by the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom's Istanbul consulate.
A Saudi court has jailed eight people for between seven and 20 years for the murder. Saudi officials denied MBS played a role, but in September 2019 he indicated some personal accountability, saying "it happened under my watch."
The reforms he has introduced have been accompanied by the detention of clerics, activists, and intellectuals, a secretive purge of royals and other prominent Saudis for alleged corruption, and the sidelining of rivals to the throne.
Saudi experts say while MBS has fuelled resentment among some royals, he has the support of others and of the security apparatus and is popular among Saudi youth.
State violence, repression
The announcement comes at a time when "the scope for politics has become blocked in all directions," the party statement said.
"The government constantly practices violence and repression, with mounting numbers of political arrests and assassinations, increasingly aggressive policies against regional states, enforced disappearances and people being driven to flee the country," it added.