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Posted on on February 20th, 2013
by Pincas Jawetz (

photo by Teri Pengilley
Princess Basma Bint Saud Bin Abdul Azizat in her London home in Acton, a suburb of West London as she looks when visiting Saudi Arabia.

Her Royal Highness Princess Basma Bint Saud Bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud (Al Saud meaning The House of Saud) is an in-house critic of the élite that runs Saudi Arabia.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was created in a struggle that stretched from 1902 when Al Saud conquered Riyadh – till 1932 when they finally replaced the Hashemites that have been installed with British help. The importance of the Kingdom grew immensely  when President Roosevelt was told by Texas oilmen that Saudi oil is needed for the American post-war economy, and in 1945, on his way back from Yalta, Roosevelt met King Ibn Saud on the cruiser Quincy, in the Great Bitter Lake part of the Suez Canal,  to seal an oil for security agreement.

The oil country is an absolute monarchy, and the land is viewed as the property of the the House of Saud.

The oil state boasts now a 15,000-strong royal family, but it is rare for a voice from within its ranks to become part of the growing clamor for reform in the desert kingdom.

As the youngest daughter of the country’s second king, Saud the son of Abdul Aziz, and thus only a member of the third generation to the Kingdom since it was established, and niece to its current ruler Abdullah, she is from the highest echelons of the Saudi monarchy. Just as her privileged status gives her considerable authority in the debate about change, so this carefully dissenting royal has much to lose if her actions incur the displeasure of Saudi Arabia’s ultra-conservative regime.

But then Basma Bint Saud is no ordinary Saudi princess. A 48-year-old divorcee and a successful businesswoman, owning among other enterprises a restaurant in Jeddah and five additional lines of restaurants in progress, she has spent the last five years in the country building as well a career as a journalist and a blogger, confronting head on sensitive subjects from the abuse of women and poverty in the world’s second biggest oil exporter, to the chilling effect of the mutawa, the kingdom’s draconian religious police. Her website is

Her success at shining light on problems in Saudi society (a Facebook fan page has 25,000 followers), led her to conducting her campaign not from her birthplace in the capital, Riyadh, or her previous home in Jeddah, but from a recently-acquired house in the west London suburb of Acton which she shares with three of her five children.

The princess underlines that she was not forced to leave Saudi Arabia and goes out of her way to emphasise that her criticisms do not relate to her octogenarian uncle, King Abdullah, or the other senior members of the monarchy. Instead, the focus of her anger are governors, administrators, and plutocrats, who run the country day to day.

Amnesty International, January 2012, accused the Saudi authorities of conducting a campaign of repression against protesters and reformists following the revolutions that swept the Arab world, during which Riyadh sent troops into neighbouring Bahrain, so calls for greater political freedom from Shi’ites were stamped out. The impression of increased authoritarianism was not allayed by detention in October of three young Saudi film makers who posted on the internet a documentary about poverty in Riyadh.

Princess Basma insists she is no “rebel,” nor an advocate of regime change. She says – “The problems are because of the ruling ministers. We have ministers who are incapable of doing what has been ordered from above – because there is no follow up – because there are no consequences.
If you are poor man and you steal, your hand is cut off after three offenses. But if you are a rich man, nobody will say anything to you.”

“We have 15,000 royals, she said, and around 13,000 don’t enjoy the wealth. You have 2,000 who are multi-millionaires, who have all the power, all the wealth and no-one can even utter a word against it because they are afraid to lose what they have.”

Speaking fluently with a neutral English accent picked up as a teenager in the UK – Basma admits she is the product of a not only a privileged upbringing, but on top of this an atypical one, for a Saudi princess.

She is the 115th – and last – child of King Saud, the eldest surviving son of Saudi Arabia’s founding monarch Abdul Aziz.

King Saud was overthrown in 1964 by his brother, Faisal, and left for exile in Europe. Basma’s mother, a Syrian-born woman who was chosen for her future husband when she visited Mecca on the haj at the age of 10, took her children to the Middle East’s then most cosmopolitan city, the Lebanese capital of Beirut, where the young princess was schooled by French nuns among Christians, Jews and Muslims who did not adhere to the austere Wahhabi branch of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia.

When Lebanon’s civil war broke out in 1975, the family fled for Britain, where she attended a Hertfordshire girls’ school, and an international college in Oxford, before spending two years studying in Switzerland. It was a very different existence from the closeted upbringing normally led by young Saudi royal girls.

She explained how, at the age of 17, she joined one of the first visits to post-Mao China by foreign students, describing vividly how her group were taken to a farm and treated to a delicacy in the form of the brains of a live monkey chained and slaughtered at the table. She said: “Some girls screamed and fainted. Others were sick. I went to the car and refused to go back into the building. China was like visiting the moon.”

Equally alien was the land of her birth when she returned in early 1980s. Upon entering the royal court (“I was very careful, very nervous to behave correctly”), she found a cut-off society which, paradoxically, was more relaxed than present-day Saudi Arabia.

She said: “If China was like the moon, then arriving in Saudi Arabia was Mars. At least you can see the moon from Earth. It was a completely secluded society, but I wouldn’t say backward – not as backward as it is now. It was much more open and tolerant. You wouldn’t hear people saying ‘go to prayer’, ‘go and do this and that’.

“This is the atmosphere you have now. It is such a non-tolerant atmosphere, even of other sects. Any other sect that doesn’t actually belong to our community is thought to be – I’m not going to be sharp but very specific – not the true Islam.”

It is an intolerance which she claims pervades Saudi society, fromented by the mutawa, otherwise known as the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vices, ironically founded by her father to act as a check on traders charging inflated prices.

“Our religious police has the most dangerous effect on society, she said – the segregation of genders, putting the wrong ideas in the heads of men and women, producing psychological diseases that never existed in our country before, like fanatacism. The mutawa are everywhere, trying to lead society to a very virtuous life that doesn’t exist. Everthing is now behind closed doors.”

Amid regular accounts of executions  – Amnesty International last week described as “truly appalling” the death penalty carried out on a Saudi woman for “sorcery and witchcraft – Basma makes the point that human rights abuses happen to both genders but fall disproportionately on women.

As a result, she is slightly bewildered by the focus on the continuing prohibition on Saudi women, who cannot go to university or take a job without a male guardian’s permission, to being allowed to drive.

“Why don’t we actually fight for a woman’s right even to complain about being beaten up. That is more important than driving.
If a woman is beaten, they are told to go back to their homes – their fathers, husbands, brothers – to be beaten up again and locked up in the house.
No law, no police will protect them.

“We are overlooking essential rights of a human being – the right to mix between the sexes, to talk and study freely… We have got human rights but they are paralyzed. They are completely abstract, for the media and the western world.”

The princess, who divorced from her Saudi husband six years ago and went into business setting up a series of restaurant chains in Jeddah, which she wants to expand into Britain, has not been afraid to air such views in Saudi Arabia, writing in newspapers and websites on issues from the mutawa, to women’s prisons and clothing.

She eschews what she describes as the expected “sleep by day, live at night” leisured life of Saudi princesses and rather preoccupies herself with setting up a charity to fight poverty in the Arab world by offering a Fair Trade-type deal to artisans which will include access to education and health care.

But in a country where doctrine and adherence to orthodoxy can be everything, Princess Basma is aware of the hostility generated by a woman speaking out. She has studied Islam in depth, becoming a scholar of the faith’s great texts to give her the authority to challenge the teachings of Saudi imams. Armed with the evidence of scripture, she has rebuked the authorities in writing on issues from driving to the doctrinal basis for the requirement that women cover up in public.

But the eruption of democracy movements in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria has brought an abrupt end to her reporting from Saudi Arabia. This summer, officials began to suggest she “edit” her work. She said: “The first time they took out some sentences. The second time, paragraphs. The last time, they told me to change the whole article or the editor who published it would go to prison. I didn’t want to send anyone to prison on my behalf.”

Even though she insists her work was carried out until recently with the blessing of King Abdullah, here is a princess treading a narrow line.

Following the death in October of Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdel Aziz, the 86-year-old heir to the throne, Saudi Arabia is still ruled by the ageing and conservative generation of her uncles, who she says have given her “very strong hints” that her criticisms are not currently being met with approval.

Sitting close to a photomontage of the Saud dynasty which shows her father as a young man next to her grandfather and beside the boy Prince Nayef, the 78-year-old head of the interior ministry, who is de facto ruler, Basma underlines her respect for her father’s ruling brothers.

She said: “I am still an obedient citizen and I will always be behind the royal family. But I will never be quiet about what is happening on the ground. The unfairness of the distribution of wealth, about the power that has been unevenly given to people because they have complete obedience to those above them.

“I owe my uncles everything and what I owe them most is to tell them the truth. My mistake, my ruin is going to be insisting on telling the truth even if they don’t like it. Because I think they need to hear it, especially from one of their loyal, royal own.”

As for now, having started in Jeddah a Restaurant business, the princess has now in the works six different lines of restaurants in the West. This in itself being an amazing feat for a Saudi woman who at home in Saudi Arabia would not have been expected to act on her own, literally, on anything. But this is only the beginning.

Her Royal Highness is involved in a Western style preoccupation with philanthropies. In her interest in the fate of women and the upbringing of their children, she is involved in projects that help women develop an economic base for their well-being. She has the correct instinct that you do not give a fish to a hungry person – but you ought to teach him or her to fish in order to have an independent life. As such she is involved in development projects in Africa and is all ears about opportunities all over the globe – be it even here in the United States. Important that success stories get known, and that some of these activities reach her own home country and the Middle East in general. She looks at the refugee camps and wants to see there positive developments to replace the money waste that did not lead to results. She wants to explain to her own family at large the importance of empowering Saudi women in order to improve the lot of all Saudis – this in order to create a State that is not just dependent on one commodity – oil. At Gloria’s home here in Manhattan, she was listening to other women involved in this sort of philanthropy, or in outright business, and in many cases expressed interest to follow up with them.


Based on a January 3, 2012 article by Cahal Milmo of the Guardian and on my having had the honor to meet the Royal Highness in New York, February 18, 2013 at the home of Society and Diplomatic Review Publisher Ms. Gloria Starr Kins.

The initial article by Cahal Milmo was “Royal runs campaign for change in her homeland from a suburb in west London” and was published by the Guardian of the UK.


please see also the excellent video interview article of July 4, 2011 posted by MEMRI (Arabic spoken with English written  translation):

MEMRI: Saudi Columnist Princess Basma bint Saud bin Abd Al-Aziz

Video Clip 4, 2011
#3014 – Saudi Columnist Princess Basma bint Saud bin Abd Al-Aziz Aal Saud Describes the


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