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Saudis cling to outlet for free expression

The kingdom has told some private discussion groups to register or quit altogether.

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For 14 years she has been gathering with some 150 other female Saudi academics for monthly diwaniyas, or salons. At the home of one of the group's members in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, they talked about the issues of the day: the plight of Saudi women, elections, civil society, and domestic violence.

But now the professor worries that the government is beginning to stifle her salon and others, further backing away from making substantial reforms.

These discussion groups, which have been growing in number in recent years, are among the only outlets for collective expression in a country where public gatherings and political parties are banned.

She says she received a troubling call from a government official a few weeks ago asking her to register the group with the Ministry of Interior or face police action against her group. "The official kept calling me, but I said I would not believe what he was saying unless he could send me something in writing," recalls the academic, who asked for anonymity for fear of retribution.

"My husband was finally called in to have a meeting with a Riyadh Governorate official who told him that a new law was going into effect that would force all discussion groups in private homes who have guest speakers to be registered with the Ministry of Interior," she says.

Not only will these discussion groups apparently have to be registered with the government, but each may have to apply for permission from the appropriate ministry depending on the topic being discussed, according to this academic.

But the kingdom appears to be sending mixed signals to the Saudi salons. Some groups have been told to stop meeting altogether, while others have not received any notification to either register or disband. No one has yet received any order in writing.

"These groups will have to register themselves with their local police only if they hold these meetings in [rental vacation houses]," says a Ministry of Interior spokesman, who also denied that people holding such meetings in private homes would have to register.

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