Saudi Arabia's Mass Movement: a Long-Awaited
Struggle for Democracy and Independence
On July 10th, thousands of mourners filled the streets of Qatif in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province for the funeral of Muhammed el-Filfil, one of the latest victims of the Saudi regime's recent crackdown on that country's citizens. The funeral march was as much a protest of the kingdom's repressive policies as it was a ceremony for the young man. El-Filfil was one of two men killed on July 8th in a protest against the recent shooting and arrest of Sheik Nimr al-Nimr, a well-known Shiite cleric. The incident was only the latest in a wave of protests against the kingdom's declining standard of living, muzzling of protesters and anti-Shia discrimination that has surged since the beginning of the “Arab Spring” mass movements began in December 2010.
The wave of protests in Saudi Arabia was sparked in January 2011 when a 65-year-old man set himself on fire in Samitah. The demonstrations quickly spread to the country's Eastern Province, home to a large portion of the kingdom's Shi'a minority. A handful of labour rights rallies sprang up around the country as well, along with women's suffrage protests.
Protests continued throughout 2011, despite harsh government crackdowns. A number of protesters were killed by Saudi security forces, while many others were arbitrarily arrested and jailed.
The protests have showed no signs of slowing in 2012, although those who make their voices heard face increasing danger. In January and February, four protesters were killed when security forces opened fire on demonstrations. The Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in the Arabian Peninsula also reported that Saudi security forces arrested medical personnel for treating injured protesters. However, the repression has only been met with more protests. On January 16, 70,000 people attended funeral for Issam Mohamed Abu Abdallah, who was killed by security forces in al-Awamiyah on January 12th.
Shi'a Denied Human and Democratic Rights
Although it is only recently that these protests have reached the boiling point, the resentment of many of the kingdom's policies have been simmering for a long time. The hub of the protests is in the Eastern Province, where the central issue is discrimination against Saudi Arabia's Shi'a minority. Shiites make up about 15% of the country's 28 million people, but they have faced official and institutionalized discrimination since the area of the Eastern Province was taken over by the al-Saud family in 1913. The Saudi regime enforces an ultra-conservative type of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism, which views Shiites as heretics and treats them as second-class citizens.
Religious rights of the Shi'a are extremely restricted. Shi'a Islam is prohibited in schools, where children are often told they are heretics. Public demonstrations of faith are prohibited. In a 2009 report titled “Denied Dignity: Systematic Discrimination and Hostility toward Saudi Shi'a Citizens”, Human Rights Watch reported that, “since 2001 the authorities in Ahsa' have imposed extrajudicial prison sentences on leaders of communal prayers and on persons selling articles used in Shia religious ceremonies such as `Ashura' and Qarqi'un, which remain prohibited in many Saudi Shia communities.”
Shi'a religious texts are also banned, and must be smuggled into the country. Their mosques are all but prohibited as well. In a 2005 article in the Washington Post, Scott Wilson writes, “the twin minarets of an enormous Sunni mosque loom over the old center of [Qatif], a government gift that dwarfs the crumbling mud fortress and concrete homes around it. But only a few of the faithful walk through the mosque's arched doors for evening prayer.
In its shadow is the Shiite mosque, a shop-size jumble of tin, wood planks and masonry capped by a tiny minaret. Shiites worship inside its moldering brick walls and in the dozens of other antique mosques across this city, landmarks to discrimination.
Shiite leaders say the local government, filled out by Sunnis from outside the region at its upper ranks, had banned the construction of Shiite mosques for 30 years and now normally limits their size.”
Discrimination against the Shi'a extends not only to religious life, but to public life, political life and work as well. It is almost unheard of for a Shiite to hold public office, become an officer in the military, or advance beyond low-level positions in any company. This massive inequality in all areas of life has resulted in fertile conditions for today's reawakening of the Shi'a protest movement.
Beneath the Glitter of Black Gold
When asked to imagine Saudi Arabia, most people would conjure up a vision of a desert oasis filled with the by-products of oil wealth: sparkling skyscrapers, posh Western-only compounds and expensive shopping malls. But underneath the glitz and glamour is a much uglier reality: millions living unemployed and in poverty, a rapidly decreasing standard of living and a brutally repressive state which silences all voices of dissent.
Although the official unemployment rate in Saudi Arabia is 10%, many independent sources post it at closer to 25%. More than three quarters of Saudis work in government institutions, while eighty percent of the labour force working the private sector are foreigners. According to Foreign Policy magazine, “Foreign workers in Saudi Arabia on average receive wages that are 3.6 times less than what Saudi workers receive, and have a reputation for accepting long hours and poor conditions.”
There are dozens of reports of women who come to the kingdom to work as maids, only to find themselves working as little more than slaves. They are not allowed to leave the country without permission of their employer, and have no recourse in the frequent event that they have not been paid for months or years. A 2011 article in The Guardian reported that “[An] Indonesian maid... faces execution for killing her boss whom she alleges tried to rape her. Other recent incidents include a Sri Lankan maid who had nails driven into her legs and arms by her employers, and another who was scalded with a hot iron.”
Men who come to the country to earn a living often work 16 or 20 hour days non-stop for little pay. They also face a complete lack of rights in the legal system, with many being tortured into forced confessions and then executed without any due process, even as it exists under Saudi law.
These horrific working conditions have not only affected foreign workers, however. The massive importation of non-nationals who will work for nearly nothing has driven down the standards of working and living conditions for everyone in the country. This has resulted in high levels of unemployment, especially among Saudi youth. Estimates put youth unemployment levels at around 40% and rising. Many are left staring at a bleak future in which they will never be able to afford to buy a house or start a family. This frustrated generation is becoming increasingly vocal in calls for change as they watch youth in other countries such as Egypt and Tunisia who have led the charge for human and democratic rights in their countries.
A Call for Democracy and Human Rights
Protests in the Eastern Province have centered around demands for an end to anti-Shi'a discrimination and a release of all prisoners held without charge. Activists have also been demanding a withdrawal of Saudi troops from neighbouring Bahrain, where the government has sent security forces in an attempt to crush the mass movement there. However, demands have begun to go beyond a call for rights within the current system; many, including recently arrested cleric Nimr al-Nimr, have been calling for independence of the Eastern Province. Others have called for an overthrow of the al-Saud regime.
Although these protests have been centered in the Eastern Province, it is not only the Shi'a who are demanding their rights. Protests for labour rights, women's rights and for the release of political prisoners have been on the rise in other parts of the country as well. Numerous online voices against the government have sprung up, through blogs, Facebook pages and Twitter accounts on which people across the country have stated their opposition to the government's repressive policies. Because Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, citizens have no right to form political parties or even vote for their representatives. All laws are drafted by an appointed shura council and passed by the king. Many citizens are growing tired of living in a country where they have no right to voice their opposition to government policies through ballots or protests on the streets.
Government Responds with Further Repression
The government has used both massive repression and economic incentives in an attempt to put an end to the protests. Shortly after the protests began in 2011, the government announced an economic stimulus package that included a two-month salary bonus for government workers (80% of the native Saudi workforce) and housing programs. They hoped that by throwing money at people, they would be able to buy their way out of concerns over rising unemployment and costs of living.
On the other hand, they responded to protests with an attempt to muzzle anyone who spoke out against the government. Protests, even peaceful ones, have long been banned in practice in the kingdom, although they have not been prohibited by law. However, an anti-terrorism law drafted in 2011 would change this. The proposed Penal Law for Terrorism Crimes and Financing of Terrorism would prosecute peaceful dissent and carries harsh penalties for anyone convicted of “questioning the integrity of the King”, “harming the reputation of the state”, or “endangering national unity”, according to Amnesty International. It also allows for arbitrary detention. The law states that “a minimum of 3 years of imprisonment should be imposed on anybody who organizes a protest, participates in organizing it, aids in its preparation, incites or invites others to participate.”
What About Women?
The question of women's rights has also come to the forefront with the tide of the mass movement. Since the foundation of the kingdom, Saudi women have had virtually no rights in their own country. Women are considered dependants of men and are not allowed to travel, marry, or work without the permission of a male relative. Women have not been allowed to vote in municipal elections (the only elections held in Saudi Arabia), and although King Abdullah has promised they will be allowed to vote in 2015, it remains to be seen whether this will actually happen.
Under the strict rule of the Wahabbi clerics, women are not allowed to drive, show their faces in public, or associate with men to whom they are not related. These and other rules are strictly enforced by the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (sometimes referred to as the “religious police”).
However, women have been increasingly challenging these rules. In April 2011, many women tried to register as electors for the municipal elections, despite the government declaring that they would not be allowed to do so. In June of that year, 100 women organized a “right to drive” campaign, in which dozens of women defied the ban on their driving a vehicle. Many were arrested and jailed. Earlier in the year, Manal al-Sharif, one of the campaign organizers, was arrested for driving. According to the New York Times, al-Sharif was detained for five days and charged with “disturbing public order and inciting public opinion”.
In March, 1000 women protested at King Khaled University in Abha against corruption in the country and the university administration allowing the campus to fall into disrepair. Fifty women were injured and one killed by security forces. Protests followed by women at Taibah and Tabuk Universities. On July 15th, ten women were arrested in Buraydah at a protest demanding the release of all political prisoners in the country.
These protests for women's rights are an important step forward in a country where women have been completely silenced for decades, and where many women themselves do not believe they are entitled to equality. The results of both internal and international pressure on Saudi Arabia to grant more rights to women can be seen in some small concessions that the kingdom has been forced to make, such as allowing women athletes to participate in the Olympics for the first time this year and stating that they will allow women to vote in 2015. How far these changes go remains to be seen, but it is only through women's activism that further change is possible.
A Colonial Creation
It is important to understand that the Saudi state as it is today would not have come into existance without the direct support of the British Empire. The al-Saud dynasty in the Arabian Peninsula first began in 1744. What followed over the next 150 years was an ongoing power struggle between the al-Saud family, the Ottoman empire, and other factions. In 1916, an Arab revolt against the Ottoman empire began, supported by Britain. After the Ottoman empire was defeated in World War II, however, Britain reneged on promises to help form a pan-Arab state, instead lending their support to the al-Saud family. This allowed the Saudi dynasty to be consolidated in the Arabian Peninsula and has led to years of their autocratic and repressive rule.
US Puppet in the Persian Gulf
Today, the Saudi monarchy is a critical US ally in the Persian Gulf. With the world's largest petroleum reserves and a strategic position in the Middle East, the US administration is very concerned indeed that Saudi Arabia remain under the control of their ally. Although they cry over “human rights violations” and have given support to anti-government forces in Syria and Libya, they remain silent on the Saudi regime's brutal violations of human rights. In fact, the US ruling class is very concerned with the idea of an anti-government uprising in Saudi Arabia. Major US think-tank the Heritage Foundation released a report in April titled “Thinking the Unthinkable: Modelling a Collapse of Saudi Oil Production”. The introduction to the report states, “if an “Arab Spring” uprising completely disrupted Saudi oil production, the U.S. and the global economy would face a massive economic and strategic crisis. Russia and Iran as oil-producing states would likely exploit the crisis to increase their power around the world while undermining U.S. influence, especially in the Middle East.” The report goes on to paint a picture of what could happen if a mass movement indeed succeeded in overthrowing the government. In its conclusion and recommendations to the US government, the report states that “the U.S. will likely need to selectively use force to ensure the continued flow of oil from the region, as it did in Operation Desert Storm. Securing the oil fields and supporting allies, especially GCC members and pro- American elements in Saudi Arabia, may be imperative.” It goes on to list all military forces available to the US in the region, as well as discussing the need for more ballistic missile defenses to be added to the region.
It certainly seems that the US administration is prepared to act should such an event happen. The Saudi Press Agency reported that on July 9, CIA Director David Petraeus met with King Abdullah in Jeddah about “matters of common concern”. Although no details from this meeting were released, it seems highly likely that some of these “matters of common concern” included the need to ensure that no such uprising succeeds.
The Importance of the Struggle for Justice in Saudi Arabia
For decades the people of Saudi Arabia, especially the Shi'a population, have suffered under iron fist of the al-Saud regime and their puppet-masters, the United States. With the inspiration of other mass movements in the Arab world, they have stood up to demand their rights even in the face of severe repression. The mainstream media has virtually ignored the protest movement in Saudi Arabia, and when it is written about it is often with the criticism that it is only a small movement that is not capable of bringing change. Although the movement is not yet as large as it has been in some other Arab countries, it is no less significant. In a country where all political organization is banned outright, the organization of any protests at all is that much more significant. The ongoing protests of tens of thousands of people, even more so.
Also, the significance of the heart of the protests being in the Eastern Province cannot be underestimated. The Eastern Province holds nearly all of the Saudi oil reserves, and therefore a large portion of the US' oil supply. Therefore, the United States and the al-Saud family are quaking in their boots at the idea of a widespread protest movement and talks of Eastern Province independence. A mass movement in Saudi Arabia which succeeded in overthrowing the monarchy or even achieving independence for the Eastern Province could fundamentally change the balance of power in the Middle East. It would not only mean that one of the world's most important resources would no longer be in the hands of the US, but would also mean that a powerful regime which the US has used to maintain its stranglehold on the resources and trade markets of the Middle East would be defeated. In short, the mass movement in Saudi Arabia, along with the mass movements across the Middle East, could usher in a new era of democracy and independence that would not be aligned with US interests. This is what the United States is truly afraid of.
We people in Canada and throughout the world must support the people of Saudi Arabia in their struggle for democracy, independence and human rights, both for their own sake and for the sake of people fighting for justice, equality and independence throughout the world.
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