The regime in Saudi Arabia sent troops into Bahrain yesterday, in an attempt to help quash anti-government protests in the small neighbouring country. The Saudi regime, increasingly acting as a regional ‘policeman’, fears the spreading of anti-regime protests across the region, including in Saudi Arabia itself. Bahrain’s Sunni rulers face growing protests from its majority Shia population. The Riyadh regime in Saudi Arabia fears its oil rich eastern province, where many Shia Muslims live, might be spurred on by a successful revolt in Bahrain.
The reactionary Saudi regime is a key ally to the White House, which would not condemn yesterday’s military incursion against protesters. Saudi Arabia’s main rival in the region is majority-Shia Iran.
Despite Riyadh’s attempts to aid the crushing of protests in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia’s own protests continued last week, as described by Khalid Bhatti, below.
Several hundred people protested in Shia-majority eastern Saudi Arabia last Friday after a call for a ‘Day of Rage’. But hundreds of police prevented protests calling for democratic reforms inspired by the wave of protests sweeping the Arab world, in the capital Riyadh and other major cities.
In the eastern city of Qatif and nearby areas where the country’s minority Shiites live, several hundred people staged protests, shouting slogans calling for reforms and equality between Shiites and Sunnis. In Qatif, armoured personnel carriers and dozens of riot police in full gear surrounded the protesters. Several small protests also took place in two towns in the oil-soaked Eastern Province, where most of the country’s two million Shi’ites are concentrated.
More than 34,000 people had indicated support for the protest on an anti-government Facebook page created a few weeks ago. Protesters had planned to hold a second "day of rage" on 20 March, but it’ is unclear if that will go ahead given Friday’s turnout.
The ailing King Abdullah’s recent bid to insulate the kingdom from regional unrest by announcing a massive $36 billion package to increase salaries, reduce unemployment and provide affordable housing, while hailed in the state-run press, failed to impress many of those agitating for changes.
The economic pressure in Saudi Arabia may be less intense than in some of the poorer countries in the region, with the oil rich kingdom providing citizens with housing assistance, free healthcare and education. Still, some 70% of the population is younger than 30 years and unemployment for people under 25 runs at 40%.
Other factors fueling resentment include the lack of transparency about the monthly stipends and other benefits coughed up for the kingdom’s estimated 7,000-8,000 princes. Women are not allowed to drive and cannot travel abroad without the permission of a male relative. Women are not allowed to attend mix social gatherings and meet with males who are not close relatives. Then there are the fanatical religious police, or mutawwa’in, who beat people who are late to the five daily prayers and who, on 11 March 2002, forced young schoolgirls fleeing their burning building back into the inferno because they were not wearing correct Islamic dress. Fourteen students died in the fire, prompting rare public criticism. It is no accident that Saudi Arabia’s ‘Day of rage’ fell on the same date. The onslaught of announcements, clerical missives and stern admonitions suggested the authorities were nervous about the prospect of unrest. Still, the minority Shia population dared to defy the government.
Lack of organised opposition
Protests have been forbidden for decades, along with political parties, and there is little in the way of ‘civil society’—or the activist networks that had matured in Egypt in advance of that country’s recent unrest. The are no independent trade unions or organised working class. There are hardly any organised youth groups. The overwhelming majority of workers in the industries and in the private sector are expatriate workers from different Arab and Asian countries. But in the public sector, the majority of the workers are indigenous Saudis. In the absence of trade unions, there is no link between the workers of different sectors.
Up to this point, most opposition activists restricted their action with the circulation of online petitions. Even signing a petition has consequences. Activists point to the case of Dr. Ali Aldomani, a prominent liberal who helped lead the recent petition campaign, and who was jailed in 2004 for a similar effort (he still lives under a travel ban). One activist admitted to toning down her posts on Twitter and Facebook after signing. “Because we signed our names, they’re keeping an eye on us,” she said.
The regime recently issued statements reminding citizens that protests are illegal and that security forces are authorized to use force to prevent them. Some activists allegedly have been summoned to meet with members of the government. Planned gathering sites for the protesters have lately been swarmed with security forces. Ominous text messages have allegedly been circulating, warning people to stay at home.