Abdullah al-Hamid, an intellectual and human-rights activist whose calls for reforming Saudi Arabia’s monarchy made him one of the kingdom’s most prominent and persistent dissidents and led to frequent prison terms, died April 24 in detention. He was 69.
His death was reported by Amnesty International, which had been tracking his case. It said that he had been in a coma since having a stroke April 9.
Al-Hamid, who had hypertension, was advised by a doctor three months before his death that he needed heart surgery, according to Amnesty International. But the prison authorities threatened to cut off contact with his family if he told his relatives.
As a co-founder of one of the few independent human rights organizations in a country where dissent is being smothered more harshly than ever, al-Hamid did the unthinkable: He spoke publicly and repeatedly about sweeping political change. Combining Islamic principles with universal human rights in his writings, he called for Saudi Arabia to transform itself into a constitutional monarchy with a parliament to guarantee accountability in government and an independent judiciary.
Madawi al-Rasheed, a Saudi academic at the London School of Economics who studies Saudi reformers and activists, said al-Hamid had played a unique role in advancing human rights by rooting his arguments in the language of Islamic tradition.
“Hamid’s project will remain alive even after his death,” al-Rasheed wrote on the website Middle East Eye. “He fused tradition with new meanings that promised respect for human rights, property and the right to defend oneself against a brutal judiciary and monarchy.”
Al-Hamid was imprisoned seven times, six times between 1993 and 2008. He lost his job as a lecturer in contemporary literature at Imam Mohammad bin Saud Islamic University.
In 2013, four years after founding the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, he and another co-founder were sent back to prison on charges of destabilizing public order, spreading chaos, questioning officials’ integrity and setting up an unlicensed organization.
Al-Hamid’s final prison sentence was for 11 years. By the time he died, Saudi Arabia — while allowing some social changes, including new freedoms for women — had veered even further from his vision.
The limited room afforded to dissent in past decades has vanished under Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman. The killing in 2018 of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist who had urged the prince to change course, is only the most well-known episode in the government’s systematic campaign to co-opt, threaten, arrest or otherwise silence critical voices.
Al-Hamid’s ability to express human rights ideals in religious terms was an inspiration to many young Saudi activists, said Adam Coogle of the Middle East and North Africa Division at Human Rights Watch. But he said those who followed al-Hamid are now either in prison or exile.
“He was very courageous and bold,” Coogle added. “It’s bleak right now, but I wouldn’t say that the movement he inspired is dead. You can repress this stuff, but it’s hard to eradicate ideas.”
Abdullah al-Hamid was born in Buraydah, a city in central Saudi Arabia. (Some sources give the birth date as July 12, 1950.) He studied Arabic language and literary criticism at Riyadh University and Al-Azhar University in Egypt.
He is survived by his wife and eight children.