The Communist Party of Saudi Arabia was a pro-Soviet Marxist-Leninist party that existed from 1975 until the early 1990s. Its roots lay in the labor movement of the 1950s in the oil-producing Eastern Province. The history of this province is a hitherto almost unknown aspect of modern Saudi history, Arab Marxism, and the broader Cold War. The Saudi Communist Party helped to launch an uprising in 1979 in the Eastern Province and was particularly active in propagating its ideas throughout the 1980s as the Soviet Union and Saudi Arabia fought a proxy war in Afghanistan. Despite opposing the monarchy's use of Islam as a tool of legitimacy and a propaganda instrument against Communism in the Cold War, the party called for a common front with Islamic groups opposed to the monarchy at home. After the dissolution of the party in 1991, former party members became key actors in the reformist petitions of 1990–1991, 2003, and 2011. This article is based on fieldwork in Saudi Arabia, interviews with veteran leftists from the region, and hitherto unexamined primary sources in Arabic, German, and English, including party publications and archival sources.

The bourgeois is not comfortable inside Saudi Arabia, he does not feel that he lives in freedom.

Hamad al-Mubarak, CPSA, 19871

Saudi Arabia and the Cold War

Saudi Arabia is best known for its oil wealth, its sponsorship of Wahhabi Islam, and its oversight of the two holiest places of Islam, Mecca and Medina. The country's regional and international position as a key U.S. ally is often analyzed in terms of global oil supplies. Only rarely is this alliance studied in the context of the global Cold War.2 But Saudi Arabia's alliance with the United States was sealed in 1945, at the outset of the Cold War, and the country became a key sponsor of anti-Communist causes across the world, in particular in the last decades of the Cold War.3

That a Communist Party existed in Saudi Arabia might come as a surprise to most people. The story of the Communist Party of Saudi Arabia (al-hizb al-shuyuʿi fi al-suʿudiyya, or CPSA) shows that Marxism had been sufficiently influential for at least a nucleus of a Communist party to develop and that the Soviet Union and other Warsaw Pact countries that supported the CPSA saw Saudi Arabia as important enough to warrant some investment of resources and political capital in it. The existence of the CPSA thus testifies to the spread of Marxist ideology, Communist organizational networks, and the ambitions of the Soviet Union in the Middle East. The recasting of Saudi Arabia as both a Cold War actor and an arena in which Cold War struggles were played out allows a fresh look at the history of the country and the Arabian Peninsula and Persian Gulf region in the wider Cold War and shows that, despite the odds, radical movements sought to challenge the Saudi monarchy from the left.

The history of Communists in Saudi Arabia also undermines the notion that opposition in Saudi Arabia is overwhelmingly religious or tribal, moving beyond a narrative of Saudi exceptionalism that portrays Saudis as an anomaly, as largely apolitical and religious tribesmen governed by an enlightened ruling family that happened to become the U.S. government's staunchest Arab ally. Such narratives are dominant in and about a country where peripheral narratives and histories of dissent are suppressed and the writing and reenactment of history are tightly regulated.4 Saudi dissidents have generally not written histories of their political movements, nor have they kept systematic archives, and fierce repression has meant that much material has been destroyed.5 But in recent years, numerous memoirs have been published that shed light on the activities of secular Saudi opposition movements.6 The labor movement of the 1950s, for example, has received considerable attention in the literature.7 The history of leftwing parties, however, has until recently been discussed only on the margins of the literature on Saudi Arabia, the Arab left, and global Communist networks more broadly.8 The CPSA has received almost no attention.

The Labor Movement and Leftist Officials

Communists had been active in Saudi Arabia since the early 1950s and were instrumental in a large labor movement in the oil fields of the Eastern Province from 1953 to 1956 that periodically shut down oil production at the U.S.-owned ARAMCO oil company. A quasi-Communist party, the National Liberation Front (jabhat al-taharrur al-watani, or NLF), was established after the strikes were suppressed.

This labor movement shook the country at a time of deep divisions within the Saudi ruling family. King Abdulaziz, the founder of the kingdom, had died in 1953, and his designated successor, Saud, took to the throne. But Crown Prince Faisal soon started to challenge his half-brother Saud. Both of them, especially Saud, occasionally sought to ally themselves with progressive officials, including a group of Arab nationalist-oriented princes, the so-called Free Princes around Prince Talal.9 This period was formative for the political careers of many Saudi leftists, including the later General Secretary of the CPSA, Mahdi Habib. Habib, whose real name was Mustafa Hafiz Wahba, was probably the most important Saudi official to become a Communist.10 He was born in Kuwait as the son of Hafiz Wahba, who was a close confidant of King Abdulaziz and became the first Saudi ambassador to London. Mustafa studied economics at Cambridge University and worked with his father at the Saudi embassy. In 1954 he returned to Jeddah to work for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Abdallah al-Tariqi, a progressive Saudi oil official who went on to cofound the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in 1960, encouraged Mustafa to join him in the Eastern Province to work on oil issues.11 Mustafa became deputy minister of finance in 1960 in the so-called Red Prince, Talal's short-lived reformist government. But Mustafa was dismissed along with other progressive officials in 1962 when Crown Prince Faisal strengthened his position (Saud eventually abdicated in favor of Faisal in 1964). From 1962 to 1965 Mustafa had a consulting business, but he was never again employed by ARAMCO because of his political associations.12 Mustafa was allowed to stay in the kingdom for another couple of years, but his close association with the Free Princes, as well as with al-Tariqi, made him a figure of suspicion. In 1968, King Faisal gave him 24 hours to leave the kingdom and stripped him and his family of their Saudi citizenship.13 Mustafa then lived in Kuwait for some time and subsequently was instrumental in the founding of the CPSA.14

The Arab Cold War

From the mid-1950s to 1967, the Arab world was split in what became known as the Arab Cold War, with conservative monarchies led by Saudi Arabia and backed by the United States arrayed against revolutionary military regimes supported by the Soviet Union.15 In the 1960s, Yemen became the “hot” arena for this regional Cold War.16

After independence in 1967, South Yemen, later known as the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), became a base for leftist revolutionaries from throughout the region who waged a guerrilla battle in the Omani province of Dhofar and from there wanted to “liberate” the whole of the Arabian Peninsula and the upper Gulf states. Particularly in its early years, the PDRY adopted a strong anti-Saudi stance.17 King Faisal and other leading Saudi officials became increasingly worried about Marxist subversion from the PDRY. The king saw Communism as a global conspiracy in alliance with Zionism, and he vowed to fight both through all possible means.18

Founding the CPSA

On 25 March 1975, a distant relative assassinated Faisal. When the new King Khalid took office, he issued a general amnesty to release the remaining political prisoners from leftwing movements and allow those abroad to return. Many Saudi leftists and Arab nationalists took up this offer. That same year also saw a major push to revitalize Communist movements across the region. On May Day in 1975 the Egyptian Communist Party, which had been dissolved in 1965, announced its reconstitution.19 A Communist group was established in Kuwait the same year.20

Under these new conditions, the Saudi Communists and their backers decided to step up their activities. In August 1974, the leadership of the Saudi NLF appointed a “preparatory commission for the first congress of Saudi Communists.”21 The congress was held on 31 August 1975, and the CPSA was formed along with two guiding organs, the Central Committee (CC)—with Mahdi Habib as general secretary—and the Politburo.22 The name of the party—CPSA rather than Saudi Communist Party—reflected a refusal to be called “Saudi,” a name that might have been seen as legitimizing the ruling Al Saud family.23 Some of the views of the Saudi Communists were radical, even when compared to other Communists in the region. The first draft of the outcomes of the founding congress was shared with officials of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and some Arab Communists, who deemed the discourse and demands of the CPSA unrealistic and too radical. Upon the request of CPSU officials, the text was rewritten.24 The party eventually adopted a program in which it aligned itself staunchly with the Soviet Union and demanded a constitution, a parliament, and the nationalization of Saudi oil resources.25

Despite the party's small size, the membership was quite diverse.26 Some who had been released through the 1975 amnesty ceased political work, but others joined the newly formed CPSA and constituted the backbone of its clandestine organization.27 Apart from veterans of the labor movement of the 1950s and their family members, the party also recruited bureaucrats, journalists, and businessmen. The CPSA's threat to the regime lay mostly in its ability to transcend regional and sectarian boundaries and in the symbolism of its role as a non-Islamist political project rivaling the Saudi regime. Political parties are (and were then) banned in Saudi Arabia; thus, membership in the CPSA was illegal and punishable with long prison sentences.

The CPSA was made up of exiled leaders and the rank-and-file organization inside the country. Party members were organized in cells, and all of them used pseudonyms. Even after many years, party members did not know the real names of their supervisors.28 A Politburo member from Riyadh became the main channel of communication between the party organization inside and the leadership around Mahdi Habib.29

International Alliances

As a small party with a limited domestic base facing severe repression, the CPSA was dependent on support from an international network of Communist parties, some Middle Eastern countries, and the Soviet Union and other member-states of the Warsaw Pact.30

Relations with other Communist parties in the region were strong and important. One of the first public appearances of the CPSA was at a joint meeting with representatives of the Iraqi Communist Party and the Bahrain National Liberation Front (BNLF). The three parties stated that the progressive forces in the region should cooperate to defeat imperialism and strengthen the regimes in Iraq and the PDRY.31 Iraqi, Bahraini, and Saudi Communists had cooperated closely since the labor movement of the 1950s.32 Since 1964, Arab Communist parties had also been holding joint general conferences and had increased their cooperation.33 CPSA representatives attended these conferences and contributed to al-Nahj, the main Arab Marxist theoretical journal established by the Arab Communist parties in the early 1980s.34 The CPSA was special insofar as it was the only orthodox Marxist-Leninist Communist Party in the Gulf states and the wider Arabian Peninsula.35 In the initial phase, Aden, the capital of the PDRY, was key for the leaders in exile, just as it was for a many other leftist and anti-colonial movements in the region.36 Damascus and Beirut also became important bases for the CPSA, which probably contributed to the CPSA's pro-Syrian stance.37

Beyond the region, its key international supporters were the Soviet Union and the countries of the Warsaw Pact. Its delegations, which were made up of both men and women, occasionally met with CPSU officials. Unlike other Arab Communist parties, which were dependent on Soviet financial support, the CPSA evidently had its own sources of funding and received only limited financial aid from the Soviet Union.38

The Soviet Union was the first country to recognize Saudi Arabia in 1926 after Abdulaziz Al Saud conquered the Hijaz. Soviet officials initially saw Al Saud as an anti-imperialist leader and maintained diplomatic personnel in the country until 1938. Thereafter, Saudi diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union and other Soviet-bloc states lapsed until 1990.39 The CPSA thus could not be supported through a Soviet embassy in Saudi Arabia.40Problems of Peace and Socialism, the Marxist theoretical journal based in Prague that served as a point of reference for Communist parties around the world, regularly reported on CPSA activities.41 CPSA statements were regularly broadcast on Radio Moscow and picked up by news organizations in other Soviet-bloc countries, such as the German Democratic Republic (GDR).42 Apart from the Soviet Union, relations with the GDR were particularly strong.43 East Germany maintained a conspicuous presence in the Middle East and Africa, supporting Soviet allies such as Syria, Iraq, and the PDRY and assisting Communist parties and other groups.44 CPSA representatives regularly attended conferences and party congresses of fraternal parties around the world.45

Trying to Mobilize Workers, Women, and the Youth

Like other Communist parties, the CPSA established sub-branches for youth, students, women, and workers. Although the party called them “mass organizations,” they faced considerable difficulties reaching the masses in Saudi Arabia. Nonetheless, these branches had their own internal publications and representatives outside Saudi Arabia, and they became members of various Communist world organizations. Saudi representatives traveled to the annual congresses of their respective “parent” organizations to deliver speeches and seek new contacts.

The Saudi Peace and Solidarity Committee, for example, was an affiliate of the World Peace Council in Helsinki and the Afro-Asian Peoples’ Solidarity Organization in Cairo.46 The CPSA branch for workers, Union of Workers in Saudi (ittihad al-ʿummal fi al-suʿudiyya), was founded in 1984 to advance small-scale workers’ demands. The hope was that, even though labor unions, too, had been banned in Saudi Arabia after the strikes of the 1950s, the new CPSA branch might enable the party to become engaged in less-politicized work. But this proved difficult, and so the union focused on working with a small vanguard of workers.47 The union's publications were basic and strictly adhered to Communist Party lines.48 In April 1985 it was admitted to the World Federation of Trade Unions.49

The Union of Democratic Youth in Saudi (ittihad al-shabab al-dimuqrati fi al-suʿudiyya, or UDYS) was probably the most important of these “mass organizations.” An affiliate of the World Federation of Democratic Youth, it was founded on 14 August 1977. It cooperated with Communist youth organizations around the world, in particular with the GDR's Free German Youth (Freie Deutsche Jugend).50 UDYS published a small magazine, Nidal al-shabab (Struggle of the Young Men), which contained articles on the Communist youth movement and criticized Saudi policies toward Communist states.51 Together with other Arab Communist youth organizations, it organized study trips and summer camps in Soviet-bloc countries—such as Bulgaria—for young Saudis and Bahrainis.52 Party members were often educated in the Soviet Union, the GDR, or other countries of the Communist bloc.53 But the party's student organization, Students’ Union in Saudi (ittihad al-talaba fi al-suʿudiyya), faced difficulties reaching out to the majority of Saudi students abroad because most of them were studying in the United States.54

Although he UDYS mainly recruited young men, it also tried to work with young Saudi women, whom it regarded as particularly oppressed. Gender segregation in Saudi Arabia made it extremely difficult for men to recruit and work with women. Hence, a female wing, the Association of Democratic Women in Saudi (rabitat al-nisaʾ al-dimuqratiyyat fi al-suʿudiyya), was established to boost the involvement of women.55 In the presence of two Saudi women it was admitted to the Women's International Democratic Federation (WIDF) at the June 1987 WIDF congress in Moscow.56 The women's issue was of special importance in Saudi Arabia, where women have had to endure pervasive restrictions.57 The CPSA thus advocated the liberation of women, as well as their inclusion in the economy, in politics, and in society. To this end, the party sought to abolish all laws and institutions that kept women from being free and equal to men, including government departments dealing with girls’ education. The party's goal was to reform the education sector for both sexes.58

The 1979 Uprising in the Eastern Province

Historically, the Communists had relatively strong support in the oil-rich Saudi Eastern Province, which is also where most of the country's Shia population lives. Saudi Shia number around 10 percent of the country's population and have historically been subject to religious and institutional discrimination.

In November 1979, nearly a year into the Iranian revolution, an uprising broke out in the Shia areas of the Eastern Province. The uprising was mainly the product of underground mobilization by a Shia Islamist movement—the so-called shirazi movement—which had spread down the Gulf coast from Iraq and Kuwait in the latter half of the 1970s.59 Shia religious leaders feared that cooperation with leftists would undermine their status in society, and thus they did not inform the leftists that they planned an escalation. But once protests started and thousands were in the streets—an almost unheard-of occurrence in Saudi Arabia—some leftists from the Eastern Province, in particular younger Shia Muslims and youth close to the UDYS, joined the demonstrations.60 Carrying their own banners, they urged the Islamists not to use slogans calling for more rights for the Shia as opposed to more rights for all people. Hundreds of women, mostly from the shirazi movement but also some leftists, participated in the demonstrations.61

During the ensuing crackdown, several young leftists were arrested and tortured and two, Fidel and Faisal, were killed. The UDYS later described them as “comrades,” but it is unclear whether Fidel and Faisal were officially members of either the party or its youth wing.62 The CPSA linked the repression of the uprising to the increasing U.S. military presence in the region, which was legitimized by the alleged Communist-Soviet threat coming from Afghanistan.”63

Apart from the Communists, members of the other leftwing party in Saudi Arabia—the Socialist Action Party in the Arabian Peninsula (Hizb al-ʿamal al-ishtiraki fi al-jazira al-ʿarabiyya, hereinafter referred to as hizb al-ʿamal)—also joined the demonstrations.64 Apart from repression, the CPSA also saw the state's cooperation with the “feudalists and the big bourgeoisie” in Shia areas as one of the main reasons for the defeat of the uprising.65 The CPSA called the uprising “one of the biggest revolutionary events in the modern history of the country.”66 The CPSA praised both the uprising in the Eastern Province and the simultaneous seizure of the grand mosque in Mecca by Juhayman al-Utaybi and a group of rebels as popular uprisings, even though a millenarianist Islamic group carried out the latter operation.67

Nasir al-Saʿid, who headed a separate Arab nationalist organization, the Nasserist Union of People of the Arabian Peninsula (ittihad shaʿb al-jazira al-ʿarabiyya), also (falsely) claimed that the uprisings in the east and in Mecca were linked and organized by the Saudi opposition. As a result, he was promptly kidnapped in Beirut and most likely assassinated. The CPSA and hizb al-ʿamal publicly blamed Abu Zaim, the intelligence chief of Fatah, for al-Saʿid's disappearance, accusing him of acting on orders from Saudi Arabia.68

A Crackdown and a New Push to Organize

Although the leftists suffered from the crackdown after the uprising in the Eastern Province, their organizational structure remained intact until 1982. Most of those arrested during the intifada were released after a year or so. Some hizb al-ʿamal cadres left Saudi Arabia after the uprising, establishing relations in 1981 with the CPSA and the Popular Front in Bahrain (al-jabha al-shaʿbiyya fi al-Bahrayn, or PFB), in exile.69 The intifada led both the CPSA and hizb al-ʿamal to increase their activities.70

However, in 1982, a major arrest campaign decimated both leftwing parties in the country. One of the Palestinian employees of a hizb al-ʿamal leader in Riyadh was arrested at Riyadh airport with a bag of hizb al-ʿamal pamphlets coming from Damascus. As a result, Saudi intelligence raided the house of the hizb al-ʿamal leader and discovered the party's organizational structure. The liaison officer between hizb al-ʿamal and the CPSA subsequently gave up information on his counterpart in the CPSA, from which moment the crackdown also targeted the CPSA, leading to dozens of arrests.71

Some hizb al-ʿamal and CPSA leaders were working at the newspaper al-Yawm (Today) published in Dammam, whose weekly literary supplement had become a focal point for young leftist writers, as had cultural supplements of other Saudi newspapers.72Al-Yawm was suspended in May 1982, and its editors Muhammad al-ʿAli and ʿAli al-Dumayni, along with a former managing editor of the newspaper, Salih al-Azzaz, were arrested. Others who were arrested included members of notable Shia families from Qatif, Safwa, and the newer settlements of Jubayl and Khobar.73

The CPSA claimed that this was the first time women had been arrested and tortured, and it started a publicity campaign calling for their release.74 The CPSA leadership then claimed credit for negotiations with the government and efforts leading to the release of prisoners in June 1983, which they described as “a big success scored by the progressive patriotic forces of the country.”75 The prisoners were released under a general amnesty after vowing to abstain from politics, but some continued to be banned from writing, traveling, and taking government jobs for years.76

Hamad al-Mubarak (a pseudonym for Kamil al-Shammasi), a descendant of a prominent Shia family from Qatif, was in Damascus at the time of the intifada. After the crackdown of 1982, he was one of the few Saudi Communists who were not imprisoned, and so he became a spokesperson for the CPSA abroad.77

The remaining Saudi students in Moscow almost all returned to Saudi Arabia after finishing their education. A split thus emerged after the arrest campaign of 1982 between the members inside Saudi Arabia, who were mostly in prison, and the representatives of the party outside. Some of the former became dissatisfied with Hamad al-Mubarak (Kamil al-Shammasi), who was traveling around the world as a representative of the CPSA. Inside Saudi Arabia, two key figures were trying to reconstitute the party.78

Party rules stipulated that the CPSA should meet in congress every five years. But because of “the difficulties attending work in strict clandestinity and the extremely complicated domestic political situation—especially between 1979 and 1983—created by an official campaign of repression against Communists and other progressives,” the second congress could not be held until August 1984.79 There the party elected a new Central Committee and Politburo, confirmed Mahdi Habib as secretary general, and approved a Central Committee report and a new party program. Mahdi Habib elaborated the CPSA's policy on religious minorities by denouncing discrimination against Twelver Shia, Zaydis, and Ismailis, who are “not allowed to perform their religious rites, barred from many government offices and generally treated as second-rate people.”80 The program thus called for the admission of Shia into the military and security services, from which they were banned.81 The program was decidedly pro-Soviet, stating that the CPSA “regards defense of the Soviet Union and Lenin's great party against all attacks as one of its programmatic tasks and a statutory duty of its members” and that it was a steadfast champion of Arab-Soviet friendship. The program affirmed that the CPSA was working for “complete national liberation and striving for a national democratic revolution” in Saudi Arabia, and that it “never [lost] sight of the ultimate goals, which are common to the Communists of the whole planet: eliminating the exploitation of man by man and class domination and oppression in any form, and building socialism and communism.”82

The CPSA also denounced the U.S. military bases in the Gulf and the close military alliance between Saudi Arabia and the United States, including the extensive Saudi arms purchase program.83 The party vowed to strengthen cooperation between “nationalist and democratic forces in the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula” and to work with other peoples of the region against the influence of imperialism. The CPSA set itself against the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which had been established in 1981 to counter the perceived threat from the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Saudi Communists described the GCC as an organization designed to further imperialist interests in the Gulf.84 The CPSA also cooperated with the Iranian Communist Party (Tudeh) and the BNLF, which itself had been cofounded by Tudeh members exiled in Bahrain in the 1950s. The Communists thus managed to bridge ethnic and sectarian divides even as those divides were becoming more entrenched in the Gulf region.85

A Common Front with Islamists and the Afghan Jihad

In Saudi Arabia the Communists were well aware of the important role religion has always played in public life. Islam was a source of legitimacy for the regime, but it could also be a powerful instrument of opposition. The CPSA thus called for a common front with Islamists at home while criticizing Saudi Arabia's use of militant Islam abroad as an ideological weapon in the Cold War.

After the events of 1979, the CPSA published a booklet on what it called the “intifada November” or “November Uprising.” The Shia Islamists, on the other hand, called it intifada Muharram, insofar as the uprising had started during the first days of the fourteenth century and the month of Muharram in the Islamic calendar.86 These diverging interpretations of the intifada led to tensions between the Organization for the Islamic Revolution in the Arabian Peninsula (munazzamat al-thawra al-islamiyya fi al-jazira al-ʿarabiyya, or OIRAP) and the CPSA.87 In the immediate aftermath of the uprising, the Shia Islamists (OIRAP) considered the ideological differences too important to cooperate with the leftists.88

Throughout the 1980s however, the CPSA, hizb al-ʿamal, and the Saudi Shia Islamist opposition got to know each other better, as members of the different organizations shared Damascus as their place of exile. Both the CPSA and hizb al-ʿamal called for a nationwide democratic front.89 This was in line with the position of other Arab Communist parties, who, following “Lenin's advocacy of tactical alliance with bourgeois democratic movements in colonial and semi-colonial settings,” all advocated the common-front strategy at one point or another.90

In 1985 the CPSA argued that “we see the formation of this front as a most urgent need and a decisive prerequisite for success,” regardless of whether the allies were “believers or non-believers, if they belong to religious or lay groups.”91 The party acknowledged that, apart from the leftists, the main opposition to the regime came from tribal forces as well as from Islamists. The party identified the tribal opposition—for example, the Bani Khalid tribe, which had ruled the Eastern Province before the Al Saud—as potential allies. Cooperation with Shia Islamists also made practical sense, insofar as both were strongest in the Eastern Province. The party said that although the Salafis, conservative Sunni Muslims, stood to the right of the regime on religious and social issues, their opposition to the ruling family was laudable, making them potential allies.92 Despite some cooperation with hizb al-ʿamal and OIRAP, however, the secret nature of party work in Saudi Arabia prevented the formation of a unified, publicized national opposition coalition.93

In April 1987 the CPSA Politburo urged party members inside the country to prepare for a third congress and to be steadfast, arguing that dissatisfaction among the big bourgeoisie and some ruling family members showed that the tide might be turning in favor of revolution in Saudi Arabia, from which the party could profit. The comrades should thus build a broad coalition with all opposition forces and prominent national and social figures and should not be afraid of an alliance with Islamic forces. The aim should be “the end of absolute monarchical rule and the realization of democracy for our people under any pretext,” even if potential allies showed hostility toward Communism.94

One can read this as ideological flexibility and pragmatism born out of necessity or as an acknowledgment that any meaningful change in Saudi Arabia would come mainly from Islamic groups and that the CPSA would have to cooperate with them if it wished to play even a minor role. Saudi Arabia did experience widespread political mobilization in the 1980s, but this movement, known as Sahwa (Awakening), emerged out of a particular mix of local Wahhabi and imported Muslim Brotherhood ideology and networks.95 Still, this did not stop the CPSA from claiming in 1985 that the spread of Communism in the country was unstoppable and that the number of “believers in scientific Communist thought” was increasing.96

At the same time, the party criticized the monarchy's use of Islam both at home and abroad, particularly in Afghanistan, where Saudi Arabia was engaged in a proxy war with the Soviet-backed Marxist regime.97 The party maintained that “the Saudi monarchy has harnessed Islam to its class aims, using it as means of pressuring the masses” and accusing all opposition of a lack of religious faith as a pretext for persecution. As the Afghan jihad garnered more and more Saudi support, the CPSA argued that “the regime uses religious channels for spreading false information about the forces of liberation and progress, and about Communism and the Soviet Union.”98 Mahdi Habib denounced the “conspiratorial activity” of Saudi Arabia in the region and its support for the “undeclared war in Afghanistan.”99 The UDYS specifically criticized Saudi Arabia's military aid to the Mujahidin in Afghanistan, explaining that the Saudi regime not only was using its version of Islam against its own people but was also exporting it to Afghanistan, turning the conflict there into one between supporters and enemies of Islam.100 Undisturbed by this, in 1985 a delegation of the CPSA even attended a festivity of the ruling People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan in Kabul.101 Thus, even as Saudi intelligence agents were providing arms and money to the Mujahedin and Saudi jihadis fought the Soviet army on the frontlines, Saudi Communists were celebrating with Afghan Marxists the forward march of Soviet-style socialism.

Marxist Analyses of a Petro Monarchy: State-Led Development, Oil, and Saudi Arabia in the International Political Economy

In booklets and texts published in the CPSA's central organ, Tariq al-Kadihin (Path of the Downtrodden), the party often focused on Saudi Arabia's political economy and its position in the international system. The Communists highlighted Saudi Arabia's importance to the global capitalist order and argued that overreliance on oil production prevented the development of other economic sectors. After the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, Saudi Arabia started to buy back shares in ARAMCO from the U.S. oil majors, regaining full ownership of the company by 1980. Saudi Arabia was thus effectively renationalizing its oil resources, something that had been a key demand of the CPSA in its 1975 manifesto. The party called for the “liberation of our oil wealth” through the transformation and empowerment of the two Saudi oil companies, ARAMCO and Petromin, in order to end their reliance on foreign and “capitalist” forces, a reference to the ongoing reliance of Saudi oil operations on Western expertise.102

The CPSA demanded that oil wealth be targeted to develop the country and strengthen OPEC and progressive Arab countries rather than end up in foreign bank accounts or go toward purchases of arms from Western countries. Such a true “liberation of the oil wealth and the economy” was possible only if Saudi Arabia strengthened its relationship with the Soviet bloc, above all the USSR.103

Although the post-1973 period had seen oil prices rise to more than $100 a barrel by 1980, prices fell rapidly in 1986 and did not rise again above $40 until 1990. The price fall was in large part spurred by a Saudi decision, announced by oil minister Yamani in the fall of 1985, to increase oil production to regain market share from other OPEC states. Paradoxically, this led to an economic crisis in Saudi Arabia. The CPSA blamed the monarchy for this, arguing that overreliance on oil made the country vulnerable to shocks.104 The state sector had dramatically increased in size and importance after the oil boom of the 1970s, and provision of social services and benefits to Saudi citizens had expanded.105 But by the mid-1980s the CPSA was criticizing the reductions of local subsidies for food and consumer goods, as well as electricity and social security.106

The CPSA also accused the monarchy of undermining OPEC by flooding the market with oil and keeping prices low. Low oil prices were also a point of great concern for the Soviet Union. (Iran, Saudi Arabia's regional rival, which was embroiled in a war against Saudi-supported Iraq, was also suffering from the low price of oil.)107 The CPSA called for an end to the Iran-Iraq War and Western support for Iraq, as well as the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Gulf. The party also condemned the Saudi role in the Iran-contra scandal, which had just become public.108

Pointing out that the domestic Saudi market absorbs no more than 40 percent of the national income from oil revenues, the party expressed anger that “the rest is remitted to US and European banks and spent on major economic projects in big capitalist countries which eases the impact of the crisis affecting them.”109 Furthermore,

these funds are also used for the purchase of incredible quantities of arms exceeding the actual requirements of national defense many times over, for the financing of subversive activities against national liberation movements and progressive patriotic regimes, and for aid to reactionary governments, primarily in the Arab world.110

The recycling of petrodollars, particularly from the Middle East, became ever more important to American hegemony, especially after 1973.111 The CPSA thus publicized Saudi Arabia's crucial importance to the West during the Cold War as a guarantor of low oil prices, buyer of arms, funder of anti-Communist causes, creditor, and investor.

Even as the Saudi government provided support to conservative regimes in the region and channeled funding to prestige projects, the CPSA criticized it for “downgrading its part in developing the production base, placing it in the care of the private sector.” The “national bourgeoisie, deprived of material opportunities and the experience needed for independent economic management, is finding itself totally lacking government protection in the present economic crisis.”112 This dissatisfaction sparked a series of strikes in the Eastern Province in 1986.113

The CPSA became more enthusiastic about its fortunes as the economic crisis in Saudi Arabia deepened. It even sought to establish an alliance with the Saudi “comprador bourgeoisie,” which, according to the CPSA, wanted to establish diplomatic relations with the Soviet bloc to improve its economic prospects.114 When a business conference held in Abha in 1987 and attended by several hundred businessmen and officials called for legal and financial reforms and greater state support to the private sector, the party endorsed these calls.115

Domestically, the CPSA saw the basic contradiction in the country as one “between the ruling class bloc, on the one hand, and the workers, peasants, Bedouin masses, revolutionary intellectuals, petty bourgeoisie, and influential groups of the national bourgeoisie, on the other.”116 As a result of this analysis, it vowed to “abolish the absolute monarchy” and establish in its place a “democratic republic.”117 To achieve a social and political transformation toward socialism, the party advocated the liberation of peasants from feudal relationships and the dissolution of key state institutions, such as the religious police and the National Guard, which it saw as an obstacle to an inclusive national army.

The End of the Cold War, the Gulf Crisis, and Calls for Reform

Increasingly the CPSA also tried to use a human rights discourse to criticize the regime. In August 1986, the party's human rights committee denounced the arrests of workers and students, including Yemenis and Pakistanis, “whose ‘crime’ is solely that they want to see their homeland free of oppression and wish to have nothing to do with the regime's pro-US policy.”118 After the stampede in Mecca in July 1987 during which hundreds of Iranian pilgrims as well as many Saudis died, repression intensified. The CPSA human rights committee said that the “patriot” Jafar Hussayn Hammoud had been tortured to death in August 1987 and that brutal interrogation methods were being used in Dammam. In particular, it denounced the “undeclared state of emergency” and the stationing of National Guard units in the Eastern Province, as well as the “kindling of communal enmity and heightening the oppression of the Shiites and other religious minorities.”119 The party argued that the regime was using the Mecca event as a pretext to crack down on the “different progressive, democratic and religious forces of the national movement.”120 The party also denounced the execution of four Shia militants from Qatif for acts of sabotage and bombings in the oil industry in 1988.121

Although the Saudi Communists continued their activities, the crisis and collapse of the Soviet Union proved to be an existential problem for the CPSA.122 The magazines that had often carried articles and statements by the CPSA, such as World Marxist Review and al-Nahj, ceased to appear. Arab Communist parties had to reconsider their ideologies, and many changed their names.123 At the CPSA's third congress, in August 1989, the party acknowledged that the Soviet Union's perestroika and glasnost policies were undermining the very reasons for its existence. As a result, the party changed its discourse, advocated democracy and human rights, and stopped its publications.124 However, the CPSA did not dissolve immediately.125

As the Cold War was coming to an end and Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait on 2 August 1990, the Gulf region became the focus of global attention. The CPSA initially denounced the Iraqi move but changed its position after the United States sent troops to Saudi Arabia for the “liberation” of Kuwait.126 A spokesman for the CPSA denounced the “American aggression” aimed at “destroying fraternal Iraq” in January 1991. The statement seemed to legitimize the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, arguing that Iraq was “an asset for the Arab nation in its legitimate pan-Arab struggle to regain its usurped rights.”127 After the war, however, the CPSA joined other Marxist-Leninist organizations from the Gulf in praising the “liberation of Kuwait” but deplored the destruction of Iraq and the central U.S. role in the operation. The organizations stressed the importance of increasing “Gulf unity based on the will of the people and democratic foundations.”128

The Gulf crisis led to a swift rapprochement between the Soviet Union and Saudi Arabia. In 1988, representatives from the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs visited the Saudi deputy prime minister and foreign minister in Riyadh. The two countries reestablished diplomatic relations in September 1990.129 Saudi Arabia and other Gulf governments then granted the cash-strapped USSR a $3 billion loan package.130 Saudi-Syrian relations also improved dramatically, as the Syrian Ba'th regime, the Iraqi Ba'th's archenemy, cooperated with the international coalition to liberate Kuwait. As a result, some of the Saudi Communists in Damascus moved to London.131 On 22 May 1990, the PDRY, the only Arab Marxist state, ceased to exist as North and South Yemen united to form the Republic of Yemen. A key sponsor of Communists in the region, located strategically to the south of Saudi Arabia, thus disappeared.

In response to the deployment of U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia, a broad opposition movement, largely led by Islamist figures, emerged. As a result, all political movements increased their activities, mainly by writing public petitions to the king, some of which were cosigned by both leftists and Islamists. The remaining CPSA cadres thought they could now openly demand reforms from within Saudi Arabia. Several Communists signed a petition to King Fahd urging far-reaching social and political reforms, such as the establishment of a Majlis al-Shura in 1990–1991. Unlike previous petitions to the ruling family, these letters were published with the names of the signatories, raising the stakes for both the petitioners and the ruling family.132

The broad turn toward calls for democracy among opposition groups in the region and the wave of petitions inside Saudi Arabia, together with an end to support from Communist allies, encouraged CPSA members to abandon their radical discourse and instead focus on democracy and human rights.133

In March 1991 CPSA members founded the National Democratic Group in Saudi (al-tajammuʿ al-watani al-dimuqrati fi al-suʿudiyya), or NDGS). The new group avoided the language of earlier publications and called for a democratic transformation through an elected constituent assembly that would draft a constitution based on rights and general freedoms.134 It published a small leaflet, al-Tajammuʿ (The gathering) and issued joint statements with Bahraini and Omani leftist organizations.135 The NDGS strongly supported the women who campaigned in Riyadh on 6 November 1990 against the ban on female driving. (The drivers were promptly arrested.)136 Former CPSA members also continued to denounce human rights abuses through the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in Saudi (lajnat al-difaʿ ʿan huquq al-insan fi al-suʿudiyya).137

This political climate encouraged other opposition groups to moderate their discourse as well. Hizb al-ʿamal, which had been severely weakened by the 1982 arrests, promised to cease its activities, and in return several of its members were released in 1991.138 OIRAP, the main Saudi Shia Islamist movement, changed its name to Reformist Movement in Saudi (al-haraka al-islahiyya fi al-suʿudiyya, or RMS) and started negotiations with the Saudi government about a political amnesty for Saudi Shia opposition activists. In 1993, the RMS and the government reached an agreement. Because several of the remaining leftists abroad were Shia, they were included in the deal. CPSA members inside Saudi Arabia held a meeting with Crown Prince Abdullah in Riyadh, where they were assured of their safety and told they would be allowed to travel and find easier employment if they stopped their political activities. In the summer of 1993, the remaining Communists abroad received a political amnesty, and the former General Secretary of the CPSA—Mahdi Habib, the alias for Mustafa Hafiz Wahba—was allowed to settle in an Arab country.139 From then on, many of the leftists were referred to as “liberals” in Saudi Arabia—a term that connotes not only a desire for more social and cultural freedoms in a conservative social context but also a secular outlook and a desire for some kind of political reform.140


The CPSA was a small, underground opposition party whose origins date to the labor movement in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia in the 1950s. As such, it was the oldest and longest-running political opposition movement in the country's history and one of the first movements to include both men and women. The CPSA tried to overcome regional and sectarian divisions that have long been used by the monarchy to prevent broad-based opposition movements. Given Saudi Arabia's position as a staunch U.S. ally in the Cold War, the regime's sponsorship of anti-Communist causes from Africa to Afghanistan, and the perception that Saudi society is deeply religious, the long existence of such a party is surprising. Social, cultural, and political obstacles—together with intense surveillance and repression—as well as the ideological rigidity of the party, explain why the CPSA failed to develop into a larger movement. Thus, its impact lies in the realm of ideas and organization. Its presence probably also strengthened the anti-Communist outlook of the regime, bolstering Saudi Arabia's alliance with the United States and Western Europe.

The CPSA's analyses of the Saudi political economy made several valid points about structural problems in an oil-exporting country, above all during the economic crisis of the 1980s. The party's frequent calls for cooperating with Islamists in a common front—especially with the Shia Islamist opposition throughout the 1980s—set a precedent for such cross-ideological cooperation in later Saudi reform movements. Former CPSA members played key roles in the reformist petitions of 1990–1991, 2003, and 2011. True to some of the calls of the CPSA, Communists cooperated with Islamists during the Sahwa and with Shia Islamists in what came to be known as the Islamo-Liberal reform movement after the September 2001 attacks in the United States. Despite some cooperation with Islamists, however, the Communists continued to see secularism as a non-negotiable principle. They quickly broke with the Islamo-Liberal project and published petitions in 2003 and 2004 denouncing the Islamists and declaring their support for Crown Prince Abdullah's allegedly reformist project.141

The demands and ideas expressed in these petitions contained elements of the demands made during the Cold War by the CPSA and its predecessor organization, the NLF, an indication of the party's ongoing influence on at least some Saudi intellectuals, who after the dissolution of the CPSA became prominent in the Saudi cultural and public sphere.142 The almost unknown history of the CPSA adds nuance to common assumptions about Saudi history and the country's role in the global Cold War, as well as to the fate of Communist parties in the Middle East generally. In 1951, King Abdulaziz could still boast to a U.S. general that, if they ever found a Communist in Saudi Arabia, he would hand the general the Communist's head.143 Many CPSA members paid dearly for their political activism, but, as this article has shown, there were indeed Communists to be found in the Land of the Two Holy Places of Islam.


I would like to thank all the friends and colleagues who helped me during my research and who commented on the article. I am also indebted to the many people who have opened their archives to me or pointed me in the right direction to archival sources. Any errors and all opinions expressed herein are solely my responsibility. I would particularly like to thank Khalid Abdallah, Kamil al-Khatti, and Helen Lackner, as well as the anonymous reviewers of the JCWS, whose comments have improved the article.



“Hamad al-Mubarak li-l-Nidaʾ,” al-Nidaʾ, 29 March 1987, p. 3, stored in the al-Safir newspaper archive, Beirut, Lebanon.


On the notion of a global Cold War, see Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007).


Apart from the support for conservative and pro-Western Arab regimes and the Saudi funding of the Afghan Mujahedin, Saudi financing of French-led anti-Communist intelligence operations in Africa since the mid-1970s via the Safari Club is particularly noteworthy. See Rachel Bronson, Thicker than Oil: America's Uneasy Relationship with Saudi Arabia (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 132–136; and Toby Matthiesen, “Saudi Arabia and the Cold War,” in Madawi al-Rasheed, ed., Salman's Legacy: The Dilemmas of a New Era in Saudi Arabia (London: Hurst & Co, 2018), pp. 217–233.


See, for example, Jörg Matthias Determann, Historiography in Saudi Arabia: Globalization and the State in the Middle East (London: I. B. Tauris, 2013); and Madawi al-Rasheed, “Political Legitimacy and the Production of History: The Case of Saudi Arabia,” in Lenore G. Martin, ed., New Frontiers in Middle East Security (London: Macmillan, 1998), pp. 25–46.


Many leftists are still afraid to talk about their political activities, partly as a result of years of imprisonment and torture. Nevertheless, I was able to interview veterans of Saudi and Gulf leftist movements and found hitherto unexamined leftist publications in private collections, libraries, and archives in the Middle East, Europe, and the United States.


These memoirs include several books by the Saudi Communist Ishaq al-Shaykh Yaʿqub. Ishaq al-Shaykh Yaʿqub, wujuh fi masabih al-dhakira, Vol. 1 (Kuwait: Dar Qurtas lil-Nashr, 2001), Vol. 2 (Kuwait: Dar Qurtas lil-Nashr, 2005), Vol. 3 (Kuwait: Dar Qurtas lil-Nashr, 2007), Vol. 4 (Beirut: Dar al-Farabi, 2011). For another part of his memoirs and his time in East Germany, see Ishaq al-Shaykh Yaʿqub, inni ashummu raʾihat maryam,<<AUVol. 2 (Beirut: Dar al-Farabi, 2010). For his account of his time as a political prisoner, see Ishaq al-Shaykh Yaʿqub, al-musaʾala (Beirut: Dar al-Farabi, 2011). A Saudi Shia Communist has also written substantial memoirs, which were published posthumously in 2012 because of the sensitivity of the topic: Sayyid ʿAli al-Sayyid Baqir al-ʿAwwami, al-haraka al-wataniyya fi al-suʿudiyya 1953–1973, 2 vols. (Beirut: Riyyad al-Rayyis li-l-Kutub wa-l-Nashr, 2012). ʿAli al-Dumayni, a former CPSA member, discusses some aspects of the CPSA in a book about his imprisonment for his role in the 2003 reform petitions movement. ʿSee Ali al-Dumayni, zaman li-l-sijn: azmina li-l-hurriyya (Beirut: Dar al-Kunuz al-Adabiyya, 2005). For the memoirs of a Saudi Nasserist opposition figure from Jeddah, see Ahmad ʿAdnan, al-sajin 32: ahlam Muhammad Saʿid Tayyib wa-hazaʾimhu (Beirut: Markaz al-Thaqafi al-ʿArabi, 2011). A Saudi writer, Ibrahim al-Wafi, recently published a novel about Saleh al-Mansur, a veteran Communist who was one of the first Saudis to go to Moscow. See Ibrahim al-Wafi, al-shuyuʿi al-akhir (Beirut: al-Intishar al-Arabi, 2010). The book has led to widespread debate on the subject in Saudi Arabia and to some coverage in the Saudi press. See, for example, http://www.slaati.com/2013/05/09/p48499.html and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Qzb32EQBAk. See also the comments of Kamil al-Khatti on the Saudi Left at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wjWs5Jcbdmo.


See, for example, Claudia Ghrawi, “Structural and Physical Violence in Saudi Arabian Oil Towns, 1953–1956,” in Ulrike Freitag et al., eds., Urban Violence in the Middle East: Changing Cityscapes in the Transition from Empire to Nation State (New York: Berghahn, 2015), pp. 243–264; Toby Craig Jones, Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010); and Robert Vitalis, America's Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier, 2nd ed. (London: Verso, 2009).


The few exceptions include Fred Halliday, Arabia without Sultans, 2nd ed. (London: Saqi Books, 2001); and Helen Lackner, A House Built on Sand: A Political Economy of Saudi Arabia (London: Ithaca Press, 1978), who themselves gained firsthand experience of interactions and solidarity with Gulf leftists from the 1970s onward, as well as Toby Matthiesen, “Migration, Minorities and Radical Networks: Labour Movements and Opposition Groups in Saudi Arabia, 1950–1975,” International Review of Social History, Vol. 59, No. 3 (Autumn 2014), pp. 473–504; and Rosie Bsheer, “A Counter-revolutionary State: Popular Movements and the Making of Saudi Arabia,” Past & Present, Vol. 238, No. 1 (February 2018), pp. 233–277. A recent extensive study of international Communism by a leading expert on the subject devotes only a few pages to Arab and Iranian Communist parties and does not mention the CPSA. See Silvio Pons, The Global Revolution: A History of International Communism 1917–1991 (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2014), pp. 120–122, 253.


Sarah Yisraeli, The Remaking of Saudi Arabia: The Struggle between King Saud and Crown Prince Faysal, 1953–1962 (Tel Aviv: Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, 1997). The period saw limited political openings. See Toby Matthiesen, “Centre-Periphery Relations and the Emergence of a Public Sphere in Saudi Arabia: The Municipal Elections in the Eastern Province, 1954–1960,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 42, No. 3 (2015), pp. 320–338.


Online communication with a former supporter of the CPSA, 2015.


Transcript of Interview by Muhammad al-Saif with Mustafa Hafiz Wahba for Elaph Online Newspaper, 2003.


Kai Bird, Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956–1978 (New York: Scribner, 2010), pp. 111, 126.


Ibid., p. 134.


A British diplomatic document refers to him as “a political exile in Kuwait.” His stepbrother Ali continued to be an interlocutor of the British embassy in Saudi Arabia. Internal Security in Saudi Arabia, 1970, in FCO 8/1483/2, The National Archives of the United Kingdom (TNAUK), http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C10950614.


Malcolm Kerr, The Arab Cold War: Gamal ’Abd al-Nasir and his Rivals, 1958–1970, 3rd ed. (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1971).


Jesse Ferris, Nasser's Gamble: How Intervention in Yemen Caused the Six-Day War and the Decline of Egyptian Power (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013).


Fred Halliday, Revolution and Foreign Policy: The Case of South Yemen 1967–1987 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990); Toby Matthiesen, “Red Arabia: Anti-Colonialism, the Cold War, and the Long Sixties in the Gulf States,” in Chen Jian et al., eds., Routledge Handbook of the Global Sixties (London: Routledge, 2018), pp. 94–105; and Abdel Razzaq Takriti, Monsoon Revolution: Republicans, Sultans, and Empires in Oman 1965–1976 (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013).


See, for example, American Embassy Jidda to Secretary of State, Washington, “Faisal Visit: King's Preoccupation with Zionism-Communism,” 23 May 1971, in National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), College Park, Maryland, Record Group (RG) 59, 1970–1973, Political and Defense, Box 2585, POL 7 SAUD; and William P. Rogers, “Memorandum for the President,” 24 May 1971, in NARA, RG 59, 1970–1973, Political and Defense, Box 2585, POL 7 SAUD.


Joel Beinin, “The Communist Movement and Nationalist Political Discourse in Nasirist Egypt,” Middle East Journal, Vol. 41, No. 4 (Autumn 1987), pp. 568–584; and Tareq Ismael and Rifa'at El-Sa'id, The Communist Movement in Egypt, 1920–1988 (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1990), pp. 127–150.


Hizb Ittihad al-Shaʿb was established on 14 March 1975, and a Communist organization for the youth was established in November 1976 after the dissolution of the Kuwaiti parliament. ʿAbd al-Nabi al-ʿAkri, al-tanzimat al-yasariyya fi al-jazira wa-l-khalij al-ʿarabi, 2nd ed. (Beirut: Faradis li-l-Nashr wa-l-Tawziʿ, 2014), p. 66; and Falah al-Mudayris, al-tawajuhat al-marksiyya al-Kuwaytiyya (Kuwait: Dar Qurtas li-l-Nashr, 2003).


Ghassane Salameh and Vivian Steir, “Political Power and the Saudi State,” MERIP Reports, No. 91 (September/October 1980), pp. 5–22, esp. 21.


Mark N. Katz, Russia and Arabia: Soviet Foreign Policy toward the Arabian Peninsula (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), p. 142; and “Hamad al-Mubarak li-l-Nidaʾ,” al-Nidaʾ, 29 March 1987, p. 1. Pseudonyms used by CPSA press representatives from 1979 onward include Abd al-Rahman Salih, Salim Hamid, Abu Abdallah Muhsin Abdallah, and Hamad al-Mubarak. See Richard F. Staar, ed., Yearbook on International Communist Affairs 1989 (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1989), pp. 498–500.


“Hamad al-Mubarak li-l-Nidaʾ.” At the same time, the CPSA was arguably the first Saudi opposition movement to acknowledge the existence of Saudi Arabia in its name. (Other groups, including later Islamist movements, usually referred to the Arabian Peninsula or to a specific region instead.) ʿAli al-Dumayni, zaman li-l-sijn: azmina li-l-hurriyya (Beirut: Dar al-Kunuz al-Adabiyya, 2005), p. 29.


The Saudi Comrade “Talib” (Ishaq al-Shaykh Yaʿqub) asked Abdulhadi Khalaf, a Bahraini Communist, to help draft the document. Khalaf was later asked to destroy the draft but kept a copy of it. Interview with ʿAbd al-Hadi Khalaf, London, 2015. See also ʿAbd al-Hadi Khalaf, “From Moscow to Manama,” blogpost, 30 September 2005, at http://jaddwilliam2.blogspot.co.uk/2005/09/blog-post_30.html.


Salameh and Steir, “Political Power and the Saudi State,” p. 21.


The party probably never had more than 100 active members. Interview with a former CPSA member, Saudi Arabia, 2011. Some speak of only 30 members, most of them living in exile. See David Holden and Richard Johns, The House of Saud (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1981), p. 532; and J. E. Peterson, Historical Dictionary of Saudi Arabia (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1993), p. 121.


For example, Ishaq al-Shaykh Yaʿqub, a long-time Communist, returned in 1976 and became a leader of the CPSA inside Saudi Arabia. See Ahmad al-Wasil, ‘‘al-shuyuʿi al-ʿatiq Ishaq al-Shaykh Yaʿqub’,” Jadaliyya, 3 May 2012, p. 7.


This was a security measure to prevent the dismantling of the whole organization in case of arrest. A party member remembers how, during interrogations in 1982, he was asked about the leader of his cell (Khalifa al-Dusari), but he knew only his pseudonym and thus could not give him up. See Al-Dumayni, zaman li-l-sijn, p. 33.


Online communication with a former supporter of the CPSA, 2015.


Muhammad al-Sudairi, “Days of the Cadillac: A History of the Saudi Communist Movement and Its Transnational Life,” MS thesis, London School of Economics, 2015.


An article in an East German daily on the meeting says that the Saudi NLF became a Communist party committed to Marxism-Leninism and proletarian internationalism with friendly ties to the CPSU. “Beratung marxistisch-leninistischer arabischer Parteien des Golfgebietes,” Neues Deutschland, 28 October 1975, p. 3. The Iraqi Communist Party journal also reported on the conference and the joint call for action of the “revolutionary and national movements” in Saudi Arabia, Yemen Arab Republic, PDRY, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and Iraq. See Tariq al-Sha'ab, 27 October 1975, translation in FCO 95/1868, TNAUK.


Matthiesen, “Migration, Minorities and Radical Networks.”


Tareq Ismael, The Communist Movement in the Arab World (Oxford, UK: Routledge, 2005), p. 30.


The CPSA, for example, signed a joint communiqué with other Arab Communist parties urging an end to intra-Palestinian fighting in northern Lebanon in 1983. See “Arab Communists Urge End to Palestinian Fighting,” At-Tali‘ah, 10 November 1983, in Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS), https://docs.newsbank.com/s/HistArchive/fbisdoc/FBISX/11D3DA075E921490/2DD955F032C54B7B9C395DECA643FEBC. The CPSA attended meetings of Arab Communist parties in May 1981, May 1982, July 1982, early June 1984 (in Damascus), February 1985 (in Damascus), June 1985, and April 1988 (at an unspecified location). It also participated in meetings of the Communist parties of the eastern Mediterranean, Middle East, and Red Sea regions in July and September 1981, January 1985 (in Nicosia), and March 1988. See Richard F. Staar, ed., Yearbooks on International Communist Affairs from the 1980s. The editor in chief of al-Nahj was the Iraqi Communist Fakhri Karim, but members of the various Arab Communist parties sat on the publication's editorial board, including one Saudi (Fahd al-Humud) and one Bahraini (Yusuf al-Hasan), both of whom were likely using pseudonyms. See, for example, the eighth year of al-Nahj, No. 33 (1990).


The other Marxist-Leninist party in the Arab Gulf states was the BNLF, but it never changed its name to that of an orthodox Communist party. Although the National Liberation Front of South Yemen—later the Yemeni Socialist Party—adopted “scientific socialism” in 1969 and maintained close relations with the Soviet Union and socialist countries, it did not change its name to that of a Communist party.


As of late 1976, the leadership of the CPSA abroad was said to in Aden. Radio Moscow, 28 December 1981, quoted in Richard F. Staar, ed., 1983 Yearbook on International Communist Affairs (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution, 1983), pp. 39–40. A CPSA representative praised the success of progressive candidates in the Kuwaiti parliament and the support of the PDRY for “our liberation movement” at a June 1985 meeting of Arab Communist parties. Communist Party of Egypt Collection, Archive of the International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam.


In 1985, the CPSA had at least one permanent official representative in Damascus. See Richard F. Staar, ed., 1986 Yearbook on International Communist Affairs (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution, 1986), p. 448. On 11 June 1982, a week into the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the CPSA jointly issued a statement with the BNLF, the PFB, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman, the Iraqi Communist Party, and the Democratic National Front in the YAR, praising “Syria's heroism and that of the Palestinian Revolution and the Lebanese Nationalist Movement and their confrontation of the Zionist invaders.” “Iraqi, Saudi CP's Cable Support to al-Asad,” Damascus Domestic Service in Arabic, 11 June 1982, in FBIS, https://docs.newsbank.com/s/HistArchive/fbisdoc/FBISX/11D28904504E7810/2DD955F032C54B7B9C395DECA643FEBC. The CPSA saw Syria as the “mainstay” of the anti-imperialist forces in the region. See Mahdi Habib, “The Ability to Overcome Difficulties,” World Marxist Review, Vol. 28, No. 1 (January 1985), pp. 37–41.


Interview with a former Arabic interpreter for the CPSU, 2014. In 1990, the CPSU International Department allocated $20,000 to the CPSA, a minuscule amount compared to the funds allocated to other CPs around the world. See Excerpt from Protocol No. 176 of the meeting of the CPSU Politburo of 10 January 1990, reprinted in James F. Burke, “Recently Released Material on Soviet Intelligence Operations,” Intelligence and National Security, Vol. 8, No. 2 (April 1993), pp. 238–249, esp. 248.


John Baldry, “Soviet Relations with Saudi Arabia and the Yemen, 1917–1938,” Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 20, No. 1 (Winter 1984), pp. 53–80. See also an account of early Saudi-Soviet relations written by a Saudi Shia dissident from the “shirazi” Islamist movement in exile: Fahd al-Qahtani, shuiuʿiyyun fi al-suʿudiyya: dirasa fi al-ʿalaqat al-sufitiyya al-suʿudiyya (n.p.: n.pub., 1988).


The Soviet Committee on State Security (KGB) engaged in extensive espionage and covert operations in Saudi Arabia, although it is unclear whether the CPSA was involved in these efforts. A former KGB archival chief, Vasili Mitrokhin, maintained that the Syrian Communist Party and the PDRY engaged in espionage activities against Saudi Arabia. See Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, The KGB and the World: The Mitrokhin Archive II (London: Penguin, 2006), pp. 204-205, 216.


In 1986 the CPSA was added to the journal's editorial board and editorial council. World Marxist Review, Vol. 29, No. 7 (July 1986), p. 2. CPSA representatives attended conferences organized by the World Marxist Review in Prague in November 1981, December 1984, May 1987, and April 1988. See Staar, ed., Yearbooks on International Communist Affairs; and “Participating Parties Listed,” Prague Rude Pravo, 11 December 1984, in FBIS, https://docs.newsbank.com/s/HistArchive/fbisdoc/FBISX/12390205C9B824D8/2DD955F032C54B7B9C395DECA643FEBC.


Katz, Russia and Arabia, pp. 142–143; and Aryeh Y. Yodfat, The Soviet Union and the Arabian Peninsula: Soviet Policy towards the Persian Gulf and Arabia (London: Croom Helm, 1983), pp. 133–134.


Abd al-Rahman Salih and Salim Hamid, for example, represented the CPSA at an “international scientific conference” cosponsored by the World Marxist Review and the East German Socialist Unity Party (SED) in East Berlin in October 1980. See the coverage of these events in Neues Deutschland (Berlin), 21 and 23 October 1980, cited in Staar, ed., 1983 Yearbook, pp. 39–40. The CPSA also attended SED congresses in April 1981 and April 1986.


For a case study of GDR support to the PDRY, see Miriam M. Müller, A Spectre Is Haunting Arabia: How the Germans Brought Their Communism to Yemen, Vol. 26 of Edition Politik (Bielefeld, Germany: Transcript-Verlag, 2015). For Iraq, see Joseph Sassoon, “The East German Ministry for State Security and Iraq, 1968–1989,” Journal of Cold War Studies, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Winter 2014), pp. 4–23.


CPSA representatives attended the congress of the Bulgarian Communist Party in April 1981. Hamad al-Mubarak attended the Indian Communist Party (ICP) congress in March 1982, and an unnamed CPSA representative attended the ICP congress in March 1986. Hamad al-Mubarak also attended a French Communist Party event in Paris in September 1982. In December 1987 and March 1988 he attended congresses of the Spanish Communist Party. 1983 Yearbook, p. 40; Richard F. Staar, ed., 1985 Yearbook on International Communist Affairs (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1985), p. 432; Staar, ed., 1986 Yearbook, pp. 447–448; Richard F. Staar, ed., 1987 Yearbook on International Communist Affairs (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1987), p. 457; Richard F. Staar, ed., 1988 Yearbook on International Communist Affairs (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1988), p. 430; and Richard F. Staar, ed., 1989 Yearbook on International Communist Affairs (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1989), p. 499.


The Saudi Peace and Solidarity Committee sent Nasir Muhammad and Salim Ali to the June 1983 Prague World Assembly for Peace and Life, Against Nuclear War. Amadri Mahmud represented the committee at the October 1986 Copenhagen World Congress Devoted to the International Year of Peace. See Richard F. Staar, ed., 1984 Yearbook on International Communist Affairs (Stanford, CA; Hoover Institution Press, 1984), p. 55; and Staar, ed., 1987 Yearbook, p. 457.


“Hamad al-Mubarak li-l-Nida.”


Its central publication, Sawt al-ʿummal (Voice of the workers), at times consisted of only eight pages. In 1989, it denounced the replacement of Saudi employees with non-Saudis at ARAMCO. Sawt al-ʿummal, No. 10 (April 1989), pp. 1–2.


World Trade Union Movement, No. 6, p. 2, cited in Staar, ed., 1986 Yearbook, p. 447. Sabri Shaqir al-Khatani, chairman of the Union of Workers in Saudi, and Majid Ali Zahrani attended the 11 September 1986 congress of the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) in East Berlin. WFTU publications also printed articles on the Saudi labor movement. See Staar, ed., 1987 Yearbook, p. 457. Adil Ibrahim, international secretary of the Union of Workers in Saudi, attended the 12 November 1990 World Trade Union Congress in Moscow. 1991 Yearbook on International Communist Affairs (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1991), p. 510.


On its ninth anniversary, the UDYS held its second congress. See Executive Committee of the UDYS, Damascus, June 1986, in BArch DY 24/22212, Stiftung Archiv der Parteien und Massenorganisationen der DDR im Bundesarchiv, Berlin-Lichterfelde (SAPMO). See also ittihad al-shabab al-dimuqrati fi al-suʿudiyya, wathaʾiq al-muʾtamar al-thani li-ittihad al-shabab al-dimuqrati fi al-suʿudiyya 1986 (n.p., n.d.).


Nidal al-Shabab, central organ of the UDYS, end of August 1989, in BArch DY 24/22212, SAPMO.


Online communication with a former supporter of the UDYS, 2015.


A special magazine for Saudi students in the Soviet Union included, for example, articles on the intifada of 1979 in Saudi Arabia, as well as on the People's Friendship University in Moscow. “Rabitat al-Taliba al-suʿudiyyin fi al-ittihad al-sufiti,” al-Ishʿaʿ, No. 3 (July 1980), in Nachlass Prof. Dr. Gerhard Höpp, Signatur 10.15.087, Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin, Germany. I would like to thank Claudia Ghrawi for informing me about this collection at the Zentrum Moderner Orient.


“Hamad al-Mubarak li-l-Nidaʾ”; and al-ʿAkri, al-tanzimat, p. 63.


“Hamad al-Mubarak li-l-Nidaʾ.”


1988 Yearbook, p. 430.


For background, see Madawi al-Rasheed, A Most Masculine State: Gender, Politics, and Religion in Saudi Arabia, Vol. 43 of Cambridge Middle East Studies (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013); and Amélie Le Renard, A Society of Young Women: Opportunities of Place, Power and Reform in Saudi Arabia (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014).


The CPSA in its 1984 program also called for press freedom and the establishment of cinemas, theaters, cultural clubs, and forums and claimed that shortcomings in health, housing, water, and electricity provision stemmed from corruption. al-ʿAkri, al-tanzimat, pp. 49–54.


The Saudi branch of the shirazi movement was the Organization for the Islamic Revolution in the Arabian Peninsula (munazzamat al-thawra al-islamiyya fi al-jazira al-ʿarabiyya, OIRAP). For background, see Toby Matthiesen, The Other Saudis: Shiism, Dissent and Sectarianism (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015).


Laurence Louër, Transnational Shia Politics: Religious and Political Networks in the Gulf (London: Hurst, 2008), p. 163.


Ahdath november (muharram) 1979 fi al-suʿudiyya (n.p.: Manshurat al-Hizb al-Shuyuʿi fi al-Suʿudiyya, n.d.), pp. 5, 21–22, 27; and Toby Jones, “Rebellion on the Saudi Periphery: Modernity, Marginalization, and the Shi'a Uprising of 1979,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 38, No. 2 (2006), pp. 213–233, esp. 226–227.


Executive Committee of the UDYS, Damascus, June 1986, in BArch, DY 24/22212. Hamad al-Mubarak speaks of two martyrs (Faisal and Fidel) who died during the intifada. Another UDYS member, Khalid al-Nizha, who was originally from Ha'il but studied at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in Dhahran and then worked at Aramco, died under torture in the headquarters of the general intelligence service in Riyadh after refusing to admit his relationship with UDYS. “Hamad al-Mubarak li-l-Nidaʾ”; and al-Tajammuʿ, No. 3 (September 1992), p. 2. ʿAli al-Dumayni, too, remembers being interrogated about al-Nizha during his arrest in 1982–1983. Al-Dumayni, zaman li-l-sijn, pp. 37–38. Fidel al-Saʿda's father was a supporter of the NLF and an admirer of Fidel Castro, hence his son's name. Faisal played basketball for the national team. Online communication with a former supporter of the UDYS, 2015.


The CPSA also denounced machinations against the PDRY and the hypocritical Saudi position vis-à-vis Palestine, symbolized by the arrest of pro-Palestinian demonstrators in the Eastern Province in 1967 and 1980 (the demonstrators were gathered in support of International Quds Day, an event initiated by Iran in 1979). “Bayan al-Hizb al-Shuyuʿi fi al-Suʿudiyya bi-munasibat dhikra taʾsisihi,” al-Nidaʾ, 17 September 1980.


Al-ʿAkri, al-tanzimat, pp. 225, 234. For an account of the events in the hizb al-ʿamal journal, see al-Masira, No. 10 (June 1980), pp. 10–11.


Ahdath november, p. 22.


Mahdi Habib, malamih min tatawwur al-suʿudiyya al-ijtimaʿi al-iqtisadi wa-l-siyyasi (n.p.: Tariq al-Kadihin al-Jarida al-Markaziyya li-l-Hizb al-Shuyuʿi fi al-Suʿudiyya, 1986), p. 19.


“Bayan al-Hizb al-Shuyuʿi fi al-Suʿudiyya bi-munasibat dhikra taʾsisihi,” al-Nidaʾ, 17 September 1980, pp. Views within the party diverged. Mahdi Habib praised the Eastern Province and Mecca events. But Hamad al-Mubarak, a native of the Eastern Province, characterized the uprising there only as “progressive,” stating that the mosque seizure was carried out by a “reactionary” group. See “‘For a Democratic Regime of National Independence’: “Révolution” Magazine Interview with Hamad al-Mubarak, a Leader of the Communist Party of Saudi Arabia, Information Bulletin, No. 11(1985), pp. 56–58, esp. 57. For the Mecca events, see Thomas Hegghammer and Stéphane Lacroix, “Rejectionist Islamism in Saudi Arabia: The Story of Juhayman al-’Utaybi Revisited,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 39, No. 1 (February 2007), pp. 103–122.


See the joint interview with CPSA (Said Aziz) and hizb al-ʿamal (Adnan Sirhan) representatives: “Die Königsmacht mit dem Schwert erhalten: Gespräch mit Führern des saudischen Widerstands,” AIB Dritte-Welt Zeitschrift, Nos. 10/11/12 (1984); and Nachlass Prof. Dr. Gerhard Höpp, Signatur 10.15.085, May 1985, in Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin, Germany.


“‘We Are Rebuilding Our Organization’: Interview with Saudi Arabian Opposition Figure,” MERIP Reports, Vol. 15, No. 130 (January/February 1985), pp. 15–18. The central organ of the PFB, 5 March, noted that both hizb al-ʿamal and CPSA participated in a May 1983 meeting of Arab revolutionary groups in Damascus. 5 March, June 1983, cited in 1984 Yearbook, p. 55.


Hamza al-Hasan, “The Role of Religion in Building National Identity: Case Study: Saudi Arabia,” PhD. Diss., University of Westminster, 2006, p. 311; Fouad Ibrahim, The Shiʿis of Saudi Arabia (London: Saqi Books, 2006), p. 136; and Middle East Contemporary Survey, Vol. 7, 1982–1983 (New York: Shiloah Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies / Lynne Rienner, 1985), pp. 746–747.


Online conversation with Kamel al-Khatti, May 2016. Al-Dumayni explains that the ideological proximity of the CPSA and hizb al-ʿamal meant that they recruited the same people, and that some members left one organization to join the other. This led to security problems, and when members of one party were arrested it usually had repercussions for the other party, as in 1982. al-Dumayni, zaman li-l-sijn, p. 35.


Stéphane Lacroix, Awakening Islam: The Politics of Religious Dissent in Contemporary Saudi Arabia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), pp. 15–20.


Article 19, Silent Kingdom: Freedom of Expression in Saudi Arabia, London, October 1991, pp. 23–24.


“‘In Confrontation with Reaction,’ Interview with a Representative of the CPSA,” World Marxist Review, Vol. 26, No. 4 (April 1983); and Abu Abdallah, “Against Repression and Persecution: Bring the Patriots Out of Prison (Saudi Arabia),” World Marxist Review, Vol. 26, No. 7 (July 1983), pp. 117–118. The Lebanese Communist Party declared its support for the political prisoners through its publication al-Nidaʾ. Events also were held in Syria, Greece, Cyprus, France, and other countries in support of the prisoners. See“Hamad al-Mubarak li-l-Nidaʾ.”


Habib, “The Ability to Overcome Difficulties”; Mahdi Habib, Generalsekretär des UK der KP Saudi-Arabiens, “Die Schwierigkeiten lassen sich überwinden,” PFS, January 1985, in Nachlass Prof. Dr. Gerhard Höpp, Signatur 10.15.080, Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin, Germany.


Article 19, Silent Kingdom, p. 23. Muhammad al-ʿAli, ʿAli al-Dumayni, and Ishaq al-Shaykh Yaʿqub were released but remained banned from traveling until 1993. See “Statement by the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in Saudi, dated 20 May 1992,” al-Tajammuʿ, No. 3 (September 1992), p. 4.


Online communication with a former supporter of the CPSA, 2015.




Habib, “The Ability to Overcome Difficulties.” For the full report on the conference, see al-bayan al-siyyasi al-sadir ʿan al-ijtimaʿ al-iʿtiyadi al-kamil li-l-lajna al-markaziyya li-l-hizb al-shuyuʿi fi al-suʿudiyya (n.p.: n.pub., January 1985), in Nachlass Prof. Dr. Gerhard Höpp, Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin, Germany. The conference was held at an undisclosed location, but some news reports on it originated in Aden, leading to speculation that it may have been held there. Several other parties sent congratulatory messages, such as the Australian Socialist Party and the Turkish Communist Party. See Staar, ed., 1985 Yearbook, p. 432.


Habib, “The Ability to Overcome Difficulties.”


Al-ʿAkri, al-tanzimat, p. 52; and Alexei Vassiliev, The History of Saudi Arabia (London: Saqi, 2000), p. 464.


Habib, “The Ability to Overcome Difficulties.”


Muhsin ʿAbdallah, Histiriya al-Tasalluh al-Suʿudi (n.p.: Tariq al-Kadihin al-Jarida al-Markaziyya li-l-Hizb al-Shuyuʿi fi al-Suʿudiyya, 1987).


Al-ʿAkri, al-tanzimat, p. 54.


The CPSA and the Tudeh Party issued a joint communiqué in 1985 following a meeting of representatives of both parties’ central committees at which they vowed to cooperate more closely. They denounced the “tyrannical self-centered medieval regimes” ruling their countries and argued that the Iran-Iraq War served imperialism's interests and was allowing the United States to strengthen its presence in the “Persian Gulf.” See “Tudeh-Saudi Communist Party Statement Viewed,” (Clandestine) National Voice of Iran, 20 February 1985, in FBIS, https://docs.newsbank.com/s/HistArchive/fbisdoc/FBISX/11E041575528CF20/2DD955F032C54B7B9C395DECA643FEBC.


Ahdath november.


In 1987, OIRAP attacked the CPSA after one of its spokesmen delivered a speech at a December 1986 meeting of the Lebanese Communist Party in which he described Islamists as backward and emphasized the CPSA's role in the “intifada November.” OIRAP retorted that the CPSA had participated with only “ten youths” and asked whether the timing of the intifada was based on the religious importance of Muharram or because “the people celebrate in that month the birthday of the glorious Communist Party.” OIRAP argued that the Communists had left their “closed rooms and ARAMCO offices” only after the Islamists and the masses had taken to the streets. Al-Thawra al-Islamiyya, No. 82 (January 1987), pp. 21–23.


ʿAbd al-Latif Muhammad al-ʿAmir, al-haraka al-islamiyya fi al-jazira al-ʿarabiyya (n.p.: Munazzamat al-Thawra al-Islamiyya fi al-Jazira al-ʿArabiyya/al-Safa li-l-Nashr wa-l-Tawziʿ, 1987/1988), pp. 171–172.


For hizb al-ʿamal, see Hizb al-ʿAmal al-Ishtiraki al-ʿArabi fi al-Jazira al-ʿArabiyya, al-naft wa-l-mujtamaʿ fi al-jazira al-ʿarabiyya “al-suʿudiyya” (n.p.: al-Dar al-Lubnaniyya, 1984), pp. 226–227; Nidaʾ al-Jazira, No. 1 (1986), p. 19; and al-Masira 11 (November 1980), quoted in al-ʿAkri, al-tanzimat, p. 225. For the CPSA, see Tariq al-Kadihin No. 36 (May 1987), quoted in the OIRAP journal al-Thawra al-Islamiyya, No. 92 (November 1987), pp. 40–41. “Hamad al-Mubarak li-l-Nidaʾ”; and Saudi Arabian CP Calls for National Front, Moscow (in Mandarin to China), 28 December 1981, in FBIS, https://docs.newsbank.com/s/HistArchive/fbisdoc/FBISX/126C114D009DCE70/2DD955F032C54B7B9C395DECA643FEBC. See also Sonoko Sunayama, Syria and Saudi Arabia: Collaboration and Conflicts in the Oil Era (London: I. B. Tauris, 2007), pp. 92–93. A 1980 “Statement by Communist and Workers’ Parties of the Persian Gulf and Arabian Peninsula” proclaimed that the goal was to establish a common struggle front between various “social anti-imperialist, anti-reactionary forces in each individual country” and urged the Persian Gulf states to move away from “imperialism” toward cooperation with Communist countries. Ismael, The Communist Movement, pp. 38–39.


Ismael, The Communist Movement, p. 5.


Habib, “The Ability to Overcome Difficulties,” pp. 37–41; and “In Confrontation with Reaction,” pp. 52–53.


“Hamad al-Mubarak li-l-Nidaʾ.”


The CPSA press representative Hamad al-Mubarak reiterated that, unlike the two other organizations, the CPSA's history went back to the 1950s, and it was the only opposition group from that period that still existed. He argued that dozens of opposition groups of different ideological currents had once existed but had all been crushed because, unlike the CPSA, they were not able to learn and adapt. See “Hamad al-Mubarak li-l-Nidaʾ.”


Quoted in al-ʿAkri, al-tanzimat, p. 57f.


Lacroix, Awakening Islam; and Madawi al-Rasheed, Contesting the Saudi State: Islamic Voices from a New Generation (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007).


Tariq al-Kadihin, No. 27 (August 1985), quoted in al-ʿAkri, al-tanzimat, pp. 55–57. See also “al-Hizb al-Shuyuʿi fi al-Suʿudiyya yahtafil bi-l-dhikra al-ʿashira li-ʿilanihi,” al-Nidaʾ, 15 September 1985, translated as “The Tenth Anniversary of the Communist Party of Saudi Arabia,” Information Bulletin, No. 1 (1986), pp. 54–58.


For details on the role of Saudi Arabia and its intelligence service in the Afghan jihad, see Steve Coll, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (New York: Penguin, 2004).


“In Confrontation with Reaction”; and “In der Auseinandersetzung mit der Reaktion: Interview mit einem Vertreter der KP Saudi-Arabiens,” PFS, April 1983, in Nachlass Prof. Dr. Gerhard Höpp, Signatur 10.15.080, Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin, Germany.


Mahdi Habib, “Under a Canopy of Absolutism,” World Marxist Review, Vol. 30, No. 3 (March 1987), pp. 95–103, esp. 102.


“al-Suʿudiyya wa-l-Qadaya al-Afghaniyya,” Nidal al-Shabab, August 1989, pp. 2–3, in BArch DY 24/22212. Nidal al-Shabab was the central organ of UDYS.


The delegation was led by Ahmad Musa, described as the General Secretary of the CPSA. “Delegations Arrive for PDPA Anniversary,” Kabul Domestic Service, 8 January 1985, in FBIS, https://docs.newsbank.com/s/HistArchive/fbisdoc/FBISX/11EF7C05D4674FF8/2DD955F032C54B7B9C395DECA643FEBC. In an interview with MBC TV, Saudi Communist Saleh al-Mansur claimed that “many of us went to Afghanistan at the time of the Afghan revolution.” See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Qzb32EQBAk.


In 1988, ARAMCO was reconstituted as Saudi ARAMCO. Petromin had been founded in 1962 as a national oil company that was supposed to take over ARAMCO's role, but inefficiencies and bureaucratic rivalries meant that the opposite happened, and a Saudiized ARAMCO took charge of the oil industry. See Steffen Hertog, “Petromin: The Slow Death of Statist Oil Development in Saudi Arabia,” Business History, Vol. 50, No. 5 (2008), pp. 645–667.


These quotations are from a CPSA study on Saudi Arabia's economy that was presented at an International Conference in Support of the People of the Gulf, held in Nicosia, Cyprus in November 1980. See “Dirasa li-l-Hizb al-Shuyuʿi fi al-Suʿudiyya,” al-Nidaʾ, 22 November 1980.


The CPSA focused on economic problems and domestic repression during a CC plenary meeting in June 1986. Habib, “Under a Canopy of Absolutism,” pp. 99–100; Staar, ed., 1987 Yearbook, pp. 456–457; and Statement by a Plenary Meeting of the CC, Communist Party of Saudi Arabia, “Saudi Arabia: The Situation in the Country and the Party's Goals at Hand,” Information Bulletin, No. 19 (1986), pp. 25–30.


See Steffen Hertog, Princes, Brokers, and Bureaucrats: Oil and the State in Saudi Arabia (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010).


“Saudi Arabia.”


For background on the importance of oil in the Cold War, see David S. Painter, “Oil, Resources, and the Cold War, 1945–1962,” in Melvyn P. Leffler and Odd Arne Westad, eds., The Cambridge History of the Cold War, Vol. 1, Origins (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp. 486–507; and David S. Painter, “Oil and Geopolitics: The Oil Crises of the 1970s and the Cold War,” Historical Social Research, Vol. 39, No. 4 (2014), pp. 186–208.


This condemnation came during CPSA CC meetings in December 1986 and June 1987. “Bayan al-lajna al-markaziyya li-l-Hizb al-Shuyuʿi fi al-Suʿudiyya al-sadir ʿan dawra ijtimaʿatiha fi haziran al-madi,” al-Nidaʾ, 13 July 1986; al-Nidaʾ, 6 June 1987; and 1988 Yearbook, p. 430. In league with the United States, Saudi Arabia was funding a variety of anti-Communist causes, including support for the Contras fighting the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. See Jonathan Marshall, “Saudi Arabia and the Reagan Doctrine,” Middle East Report, Vol. 18, No. 155 (November/December 1988), pp. 12–17.


Habib, “The Ability to Overcome Difficulties.”




David E. Spiro, The Hidden Hand of American Hegemony: Petrodollar Recycling and International Markets (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999).


“Saudi Arabia.”


Habib, “Under a Canopy of Absolutism.” The party claimed that workers at the Hadid company in Jubail (a subsidiary of Sabic), the al-Isa company in Jubail, the Skiko energy company, the BC company in Dammam, and the cleaning staff at Qatif municipality all went on strike that year. The CPSA republished a longer version of this essay in World Marxist Review in Arabic: Mahdi Habib, malamih min tatawwur al-suʿudiyya al-ijtimaʿi al-iqtisadi wa-l-siyyasi (n.p.: Tariq al-Kadihin al-Jarida al-Markaziyya li-l-Hizb al-Shuyuʿi fi al-Suʿudiyya, 1986), p. 28.


“Hamad al-Mubarak li-l-Nidaʾ.”


Tariq al-Kadihin, No. 35, April 1987, quoted in Mahdi Habib, “When Contradictions Are Exacerbated,” World Marxist Review, Vol. 32, No. 3 (March 1989), pp. 64–68, esp. 65. Habib also praised calls for reform made by Prince Talal.


Habib, “Under a Canopy of Absolutism,” pp. 95–103, esp. 102. The CPSA published a 90-page study on the history of the Saudi state and its centralization policies, emphasizing the establishment of dominance of the tribal-feudal center over the rest of the country and incorporating sporadic comments by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels on the situation in the Arabian Peninsula. ʿAbd al-Latif Hashim, al-Hukm al-Maliki al-Mutlaq fi al-Suʿudiyya (n.p.: Tariq al-Kadihin al-Jarida al-Markaziyya li-l-Hizb al-Shuyuʿi fi al-Suʿudiyya, n.d.).


al-ʿAkri, al-tanzimat, p. 50.


Saʿad Al Amri, “Stop the Terror, End the Despotism,” World Marxist Review, Vol. 30, No. 2 (February 1987), pp. 89–90.


Saad al-Omari, “Stop Terror and Set Political Prisoners Free!,” World Marxist Review, Vol. 31, No. 2 (February 1988), pp. 160–161.


“Statement by CPSA,” al-Nidaʾ, 4 October 1987.


They were members of Hizbullah al-Hijaz, a pro-Iranian Saudi Shia militant group set up in 1987 to target the Saudi state and its representatives abroad in revenge for the deaths of Iranian pilgrims in Mecca and to change the inferior status of Saudi Shia by taking up arms. The CPSA stressed “that the party does not approve of acts of sabotage” but “noted that these acts are the outcome of the regime's policy.” “Communist Party Statement Denounces Executions,” Voice of Palestine, 6 October 1988, in FBIS, https://docs.newsbank.com/s/HistArchive/fbisdoc/FBISX/11CC2C10B9E3F240/2DD955F032C54B7B9C395DECA643FEBC. For more on Hizbullah al-Hijaz and the attacks, see Toby Matthiesen, “Hizbullah al-Hijaz: A History of the Most Radical Saudi Shi'a Opposition Group,” The Middle East Journal, Vol. 64, No. 2 (2010), pp. 179–197, esp. 185–186.


Vassiliev, The History, p. 464. A group of UDYS members still attended the Pyongyang World Youth Festival in July 1989. 1990 Yearbook on International Communist Affairs (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution, 1990), p. 573. See “Toward the Festival,” bulletin issued by the National Preparatory Committee in Saudi Arabia for the 13th World Festival of Youth and Students, No. 2, January 1989 in BArch, DY 24/22212.


Faleh A. Jabar, “The Arab Communist Parties in Search of an Identity,” in Faleh A. Jabar, ed., Post-Marxism and the Middle East (London: Saqi, 1997), pp. 91–107.


The last issue of its central organ, Tariq al-Kadihin, was published in 1989, and its other regular publication, the internal party organ Haya al-Hizb (Life of the party), ceased to be published in July 1990 after nine issues. See al-ʿAkri, al-tanzimat, pp. 58–59.


The party formed a CC, which elected the Politburo that in turn selected the General Secretary of the party. Concluding Statement issued by the Third Congress of the Communist Party—Saudi Arabia, August 1989, in BArch, DY 24/22212. The statement in the GDR archive contains a handwritten note, “per Post aus Damaskus,” indicating that the meeting was held in Damascus.


In August 1990, the CPSA and eleven Arab Communist organizations called for Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait, as well as the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Gulf area. 1991 Yearbook, p. 509.


“Communist Party Urges U.S. Pullout, Settlement,” Sawt al-Shaab, 29 January 1991, in FBIS, https://docs.newsbank.com/s/HistArchive/fbisdoc/FBISX/11CAC06A22131948/2DD955F032C54B7B9C395DECA643FEBC.


See Ismael, The Communist Movement, p. 94.


Staar, ed., 1989 Yearbook, p. 499. Secret Saudi-Soviet talks about establishing formal diplomatic relations had been under way for years. See “Saudis in ‘Secret’ Russian Talks,” The Guardian (London), 30 March 1985, p. 8.


“Saudis Cultivate Ties with Kremlin,” The New York Times, 5 December 1990, p. A21.


Sunayama, Syria and Saudi Arabia, p. 93.


This petition was signed by 43 intellectuals, including the veteran Communists Muhammad al-ʿAli, ʿAli al-Dumayni, and Ishaq al-Shaykh Yaʿqub. Al-Jazira al-ʿArabiyya, No. 1 (January 1991), pp. 4–6; and rabiʿ al-suʿudiyya wa-mukhrijat al-qamaʿ: duʿat al-islah al-siyasi (Beirut: Dar al-Kunuz al-Adabiyya, 2004), pp. 187–189.


An NDGS executive committee member told the RMS journal al-Jazira al-ʿArabiyya that revolutionary ideology was one of the reasons for the failure of the opposition in Saudi Arabia, as socialism and the establishment of an Islamic system after the Iranian model were simply not possible. He also argued that the opposition, both Islamist and secular, had mainly been active in al-Ahsa and Qatif (Eastern Province) and that it was time to establish a broad national coalition. Al-Jazira al-ʿArabiyya, No. 6 (July 1991), pp. 19–21.


The representative of the CPSA abroad distributed a communiqué dated 15 March 1991 announcing the formation of the NDGS. Al-ʿAkri, al-tanzimat, pp. 60–63; “Al-tajammuʿ al-watani al-dimuqrati fi al-suʿudiyya,” al-Safir, 27 March 1991; and “al-tajammuʿ al-watani al-dimuqrati fi al-suʿudiyya,” al-Nidaʾ, 26 March 1991.


One communiqué, jointly signed with the BNLF, the PFB, and the Omani Popular Democratic Front, called on Iran to cede control of the Abu Musa and Tunb islands and denounced its (alleged) claim to Bahrain. “Tasrih bi-ism al-quwwa al-wataniyya fi al-Khalij wa-l-Jazira al-ʿArabiyya,” 26 September 1992, in Communist Party of Egypt Collection, Archive of the International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam. Several issues of al-Tajammuʿ were published in 1991 and 1992.


For more on the women's driving campaign, see al-Tajammuʿ Nos. 1 (March 1992) and 2 (June 1992); and Al-Jazira al-ʿArabiyya, No. 1 (January 1991), pp. 31–33. The drive-in led, however, to problems with Islamist reformers, who disapproved. For a list of fatwas denouncing the drive-in, see al-Jazira al-ʿArabiyya, No. 2 (February 1991), pp. 31–34.


See their statements in several issues of al-Tajammuʿ.


Human Rights Watch, World Report 1992: Saudi Arabia.


Al-ʿAkri, al-tanzimat, pp. 64, 247; and Interview with ʿAbd al-Nabi al-ʿAkri, 2015, London. In return, a CPSA member praised Crown Prince Abdullah for reaching out to reformists. During a Jordanian Communist Party conference, Hamad al-Mubarak gave an interview as a “member in exile” of the CPSA. He explained that the party was focusing on democratic reform in the country and that socialism “is something that may materialize in the very distant future,” even though the party remained socialist in principle. He emphasized cooperation with the RMS and confirmed that Crown Prince Abdullah had met with “certain individuals accused of being members of” the party. He added that the crown prince was popular and a “known supporter of democracy” and that resistance to democracy in the ruling family was mainly coming from King Fahd's branch. “Communist Party Seeks Democracy not ‘Downfall of Monarchy,’” Jordan Times, 27 April 1993, in FBIS, https://docs.newsbank.com/s/HistArchive/fbisdoc/FBISX/11CA36A7633DF518/2DD955F032C54B7B9C395DECA643FEBC.


Richard Dekmejian, “The Liberal Impulse in Saudi Arabia,” The Middle East Journal, Vol. 57, No. 3 (Summer 2003), pp. 400–413, esp. 401–404. Saudi leftists have thus undergone a process not unlike other veteran Arab Communists, who quit their parties after 1990 and focused on cultural activities or became prominent intellectuals, embracing aspects of liberalism. See Manfred Sing, “Arab Post-Marxists after Disillusionment: Between Liberal Newspeak and Revolution Reloaded,” in Meir Hatina and Christoph Schumann, eds., Arab Liberal Thought after 1967 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), pp. 155–176.


Former supporters of hizb al-ʿamal were more conciliatory toward the Islamists, leading to a reappearance of the old rift between the CPSA and hizb al-ʿamal, the rival leftist party with a more Arab nationalist outlook. For the role of Communists—in particular, ʿAli al-Dumayni and Najib al-Khunayzi—in the 2003 petitions movement, see Stéphane Lacroix, “Saudi Arabia and the Limits of Post-Islamism,” in Asef Bayat, ed., Post-Islamism: The Changing Faces of Political Islam (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 277–297, esp. 285–287.


Some, including Najib al-Khunayzi, also started to host semi-public discussion forums in their houses. See Toby Matthiesen, “Diwaniyyas, Intellectual Salons and the Limits of Civil Society in Saudi Arabia,” in Viewpoints: Saudi Arabia 1979–2009: Evolution of a Pivotal State (Washington, DC: Middle East Institute, 2009), pp. 13–15.


Ibn Saud in conversation with Brigadier General Edwin M. Day, the commanding general of Dhahran airfield, 1951, cited in Bronson, Thicker Than Oil, p. 46.