Originally posted October 2009
In recent years, a number of discussion forums and intellectual salons have gained popularity among Saudi intellectuals. These have been most popular in urban centers, such as Riyadh and Jeddah, as well as among the Shi‘ites in the Eastern Province. In some cases, these gatherings act as a substitute for political parties, which are still banned in Saudi Arabia. One of the reasons for the popularity of these forums is the absence of other cultural activities. Yet, for many, the preferred meeting ground is still the diwan in a private home. Although most of these meetings are for men only, women have begun to organize their own forums. The diwan is a civil society structure that respects local traditions of consultation and takes place in a social space that is distinctive to the Gulf countries. The diwaniyyas of Saudi Arabia, which are flourishing, nonetheless operate within a political environment that is narrowly circumscribed.
Jeddah and Riyadh
One of the most famous diwaniyyas in Jeddah is held weekly at the house of Muhammad Sa’id Tayyib. Tayyib is a liberal intellectual and businessman who spent several years in prison for his political activities. In 2003, he was one of the key figures in an alliance of liberals and Islamists in Saudi Arabia that called for gradual social and political reforms. In his spacious living room, he presides over a diwaniyya of mostly other liberals from Jeddah. The group of regular attendees consists of merchants, academics, diplomats, politicians, and journalists. His diwaniyya has been going on for decades, although he had been ordered to close it temporarily. This diwaniyya is peculiar because it is both a space for people associated with the establishment and for more oppositional figures.
During a recent trip to Saudi Arabia, I was invited to join the discussions for a night. Initially, one would converse with one’s neighbour until at some point in the evening, Muhammed Sa‘id Tayyib or one of his close friends would bring up several topics for the discussion. Apart from poetry, literature, and the economy, social and political matters are on the top of the agenda. During my experience, a visiting member of the Majlis al-Shura was being questioned by different people on topics ranging from waste disposal to freedom of speech and political prisoners. Thereafter, a young journalist attacked the editor of a major Saudi newspaper directly for not reporting a hunger strike of Saudi liberals in response to the arrest of Matrouk al-Faleh, a liberal Professor.
Similar discussion forums exist in Riyadh, such as the diwaniyya “Rashid al-Mubarak” and the “Diwan al-Jasser.” Here, people sometimes deliver prepared speeches. In the capital, many more of these meetings exist, including those by intellectuals from other regions of the country who have moved to Riyadh.
The Eastern Province
Probably the most active region in Saudi Arabia in terms of cultural forums and gatherings is the Eastern Province. Here, several Sunni businessmen organize diwaniyyas, yet it is amongst the Shi‘ite inhabitants of Qatif, Dammam, and al-Ahsa that these gatherings have gained wide popularity in the last couple of years. These large diwaniyyas with scheduled lecture series have been named muntada (forum). They are distinct from the diwaniyyas in other areas of Saudi Arabia or the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states because they are not primarily a social gathering in private places to exchange news and meet friends.
One of the first forums was set up in 2000 by Jaafar al-Shayib, a former leader of the main Shi‘a opposition movement, the Reform Movement (Islahiyya). The salon, which is held every Tuesday and is therefore called muntada al-thulatha (Tuesday Forum), assembles intellectuals from different political persuasions, although al-Shayib’s political allies are predominant. The salon has become famous for not only discussing purely intellectual topics but also topics such as social and political reform and the overcoming of sectarianism. In addition, al-Shayeb invites many intellectuals from other regions of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries to deliver speeches. Thereafter, these speeches have been posted online on the website of the forum, where they gained a wide readership.
Najib al-Khunaizi, a secular intellectual and political activist, founded another famous monthly cultural salon, the Qatif Cultural Diwaniyya (diwaniyya al-multaqa al-thaqafi fi al-qatif), in 2004. On the homepage of the diwaniyya, the salon is described as “a Saudi civil society organization” (ihda al-muassasat al-mujtama al-madani al-saudi) that aims to foster understanding of dialogue and freedom of thought and speech.  It hosts some well-known intellectuals from the region, and is a meeting place for the liberals from the region. It is also one of the few gatherings that women are allowed to attend.
Several other salons have opened in Qatif and the surrounding villages. In fact, almost all of the larger Shi‘ite villages and towns such as Sayhat, Awamiyya or Safwa now have their own forums. Both Sunnis and Shi‘ites in al-Ahsa started to hold similar meetings in the last few years. Moreover, several forums for females have been organized by Shi‘ite women. Unlike their male counterparts, they are not allowed to post photos and videos of their meetings on the internet and therefore only reach a limited audience. However, they do invite speakers and discuss cultural and religious topics, although they are not allowed to talk about political matters. One of the organizers of such an event reported that after holding a session on women’s rights in 2006, all the forums in al-Ahsa — both male and female — were closed down by the authorities. In the meantime, some of them have been allowed to reopen, such as the one organized by the Bu Khamsin, the prominent Shi‘ite clerical and business family. The most popular Sunni salon in al-Ahsa is the one by Shaykh Ahmad al-Mubarak.
A Shi‘ite cultural journal describes these cultural forums as being “amongst the most important cultural platforms in Saudi Arabia, because they are a true mirror of the social street in the wake of the weakness — or absence — of other platforms.” The widespread emergence of these forums is striking and suggests that a new culture of dialogue and intellectual debate is emerging in Saudi Arabia, something which is also proven by the opinion pages in Saudi newspapers. Yet, these activities are often limited to what they are — speech — and to a narrow social base. Even Muhammad Sa‘id Tayyib himself is aware of the limited impact of this salon: “In the night after the diwaniyya each one of the attendees goes home, puts his head on the pillow and in the morning he wakes up, goes about his life as before and forgets about everything until he comes back next week.”
. Stéphane Lacroix, “Between Islamists and Liberals: Saudi Arabia’s New Islamo-liberal Reformist Trend,” The Middle East Journal, Vol. 58, No. 3 (2004), pp. 345-365, 355f.
. Interview with Muhammad Sa‘id Tayyib, Jeddah, November 1, 2008.
. F.A. Ibrahim, The Shi’is of Saudi Arabia (London, 2006) 216f.
. Interview with Najib al-Khunaizi, Qatif, November 2008.
. Interview with organizers of a cultural forum in al-Ahsa, November 2008.
. Yusuf Ahmad al-Hasan, Ahammiyya al-muntadiyyat al-thaqafiyya fi al-mamlaka, in al-Waha, No. 43, p. 146.
. Interview with Muhammad Sa’id Tayyib, Jeddah, November 1, 2008.