By William Fisher
The civil war in Libya has been an unexpected gift to Saudi Arabia: It has diverted the eyes of the world away from how the House of Saud is dealing with its own version of Arab Spring.
The oil-rich kingdom is pursuing a two-pronged strategy.
The first prong is to provide citizens with financial incentives designed to quell deep frustrations with the regime and keep people off the streets.
On February 23, King Abdullah began implementing that strategy by announcing a $35 billion package of financial assistance to the unemployed and support for first-time homebuyers. Then, on March 18, he announced new assistance totaling $96 billion for similar measures, in addition to creating 60,000 new security sector jobs.
The second prong of Saudi strategy is silence. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), “While King Abdullah announces financial gifts to Saudi citizens, his police arrest those who want more meaningful change.”
And “the scale of arrests has risen dramatically over the past two weeks,” according to Christoph Wilcke, HRW’s senior Middle East researcher in New York.
Saudi’s political prisoners number in the thousands. Some have been imprisoned for years, without charges, lawyers or trials. Others have been swept up by security police for trying to organize “Days of Rage” demonstrations in Saudi cities to advocate for a constitutional monarchy and a more open society. Still others have been jailed for gathering outside prisons to demand the release of political prisoners.
And it is fair to say that, aside from a few mainstream outlets, the media has treated Saudi Arabia like Las Vegas: “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas.”
Even Saudi’s deployment of more than a thousand troops to neighboring Bahrain – to help the Sunni minority rulers to hold on to power over the Shia majority – drew only passing media interest. On television, most of that interest focused on the visuals: Saudi armored troop carriers lumbering across the 26 km. causeway connecting the two countries.
HRW reports that Saudi Arabia's minority Shi'ites also complain of discrimination, saying they often struggle to get senior government jobs and benefits available to other citizens.
In early March, the Interior Ministry and the Council of Senior Religious Scholars publicly reiterated the government's ban on protests ahead of demonstrations for a Saudi "Day of Rage" that had been called for March 11.
That day, hundreds of people demonstrated in the streets of Qatif and al-Ahsa', calling for the release of nine Shia men held for over 13 years without charge or trial, and dozens of people demonstrated in Riyadh, calling for the release of thousands of Sunni security suspects held without charge or trial, some for over seven years.
Similar protests took place in the Eastern Province on March 17 and 18, and in Riyadh on March 20.
And Saudi’s response? According to HRW, more than 100 people were arrested in the Qatif district, and about 45 in the al-Ahsa' district, both Shia population centers in the kingdom's Eastern Province. A smaller number of people were jailed in the Riyadh and Qasim governorates.
Security forces in the Eastern Province arrested scores of people during protests there on March 11, 17, and 18. They arrested four people on March 25 during small protests in al-Rabi'iyya and al-‘Awwamiyya, towns in the Qatif district, a local activist told HRW.
On March 17, HRW spoke to two people who took part in the demonstration that day. They said that the protests were peaceful, but that at 8:25 p.m. a member of the security forces in civilian clothes drew a pistol and shot two protesters, Ali al-Zayid and Ali al-Saffar, wounding them. The two were among a throng trying to take away the camera of a suspected mabahith (the secret police agency of the Saudi Ministry of Interior) agent.
Security forces then carried out large-scale arrests and transferred the injured protesters to a military hospital, demonstrators and local news sources said.
Saudi Arabia expelled a Reuters correspondent, Ulf Laessing, over his reporting of the incident.
From al-Ahsa' district in the southern Eastern Province, HRW received updated lists of demonstrators arrested in small protests there on March 11 and 18. Police arrested 27 people on March 11, including seven children, and have released only one person, according to a local activist. On March 18, police arrested another 18 people, another local activist said, three of who have since been released. None of them have faced any charges.
These actions by Saudi citizens are not nearly as dramatic as those that took place in Tunisia and Egypt, but in a Saudi context they are momentous.
"Unhappiness with the current situation is something that has brought sworn
enemies together," writes Eman al-Nafjan, a postgraduate mother of three who blogs under the name Saudiwoman. She wrote:
"It's becoming more and more difficult to tell apart the demands of conservatives from those of liberals and the demands of the majority from those of minorities … Across the board, there's a demand for a constitutional monarchy and accountability and the end of corruption in handling the nation's wealth."
Taking to the streets and setting fire to police stations may not be the Saudi
way of protesting but in the last few days a lot of other things have been
Mohamad al-Deheme, a 24-year-old computer programmer set up a website called shakwa.net (the Arabic word for "grievance") where the public can post complaints directed at government ministries – and already the site has several hundred.
Then there are petitions. One of them, headed "Towards the state of rights and institutions", attracted 1,554 signatures on the Internet before the authorities blocked access to it inside the kingdom.
Another came from the "February 23 Youth" group who are demanding "national reform, constitutional reform, national dialogue, elections and female participation".
Yet another, "from Saudi intellectuals to the political leadership", is headed
"Declaration of national reform". That too was blocked by the Saudi authorities.
HRW reminds us that “to outsiders more accustomed to open dissent, all this petitioning and complaining may look like no big deal. But under an absolute monarchy, even petitioning can get you into serious trouble.”
The organization reports that in 2006, Musa al-Qarni and three other men politely asked the king to form an Islamic debating society that would discuss "freedom, justice, equality, citizenship, pluralism, [proper] advice, and the role of women". The king ignored his request and several months later, Qarni was arrested and carted off to jail after the secret police stormed a villa in Jeddah where several men "widely known for their advocacy on issues of social and political reform" were meeting.
Some of the detainees’ stories collected by HRW are heart-breaking.
In front of the Interior Ministry in Riyadh, police detained Bahiya, Dana, and Badria al-Rashudi and held them for a day, two fellow activists told Human Rights Watch. They are the daughters of Sulaiman al-Rashudi, a 76-year-old former judge and reform advocate arrested in February 2007 and held for years before prosecutors charged him recently, a lawyer for another man arrested and imprisoned with al-Rashudi told Human Rights Watch. Al-Rashudi is prohibited from contacting his lawyers. The daughters were there to demand their father's release.
On the night of March 20, the authorities arrested Muhammad al-Bajadi at his home in Qasim province, a statement from the Saudi Association for Political and Civil Rights said, and another activist confirmed. Al-Bajadi, a member of the association, which the government has refused an operating license, had supported families demonstrating at the Interior Ministry to demand their relatives' release. Mubarak bin Zu'air, a lawyer whose father Sa'id bin Zu'air, and brother, Sa'd bin Sa'id bin Zu'air, have long been detained without charge by the country's domestic intelligence service, was also arrested, as was Abd al-‘Aziz al-Qaffari, demonstrating for the release of his brother.
Professor Abd al-Karim al-Khadr told Human Rights Watch that on March 20 he went from his home in Qasim province to the Interior Ministry in Riyadh to inquire about his son, Thamir, a rights activist detained without charge since March 2010. Police there arrested his other son, 17-year-old Jihad. Al-Khadr did not hear from Jihad until early on March 25, when he briefly saw him at Riyadh's Ma'dhar Police Station. Officers there informed him that their superiors had prohibited communication with those arrested.
Saudi domestic intelligence forces, the Interior Ministry's Directorate for General Investigations (mabahith), which runs its own prisons, also arrested two Syrian nationals over the past month, apparently for their peaceful criticism of political conditions. On February 26, the mabahith arrested Bashar Mihriz ‘Abud at his office in Riyadh, where he recently had started work as an editor of Mobily, the magazine of the mobile phone carrier of the same name, a Jeddah-based human rights activist told Human Rights Watch.
‘Abud had worked for eight years as an editor for the prominent daily newspaper Okaz and continued to write for the publication. His most recent article, written shortly before his arrest, detailed the life of the Syrian filmmaker Umar Amiralay, who died on February 5. Amiralay had been a vocal activist for political change in Syria, signing petitions in 2000 and 2005 calling for an end to emergency rule and the release of political prisoners there. ‘Abud's wife, now in Syria, told Human Rights Watch that she had received a call from her husband on March 19, saying he was in al-Ha'ir prison south of Riyadh, and that his interrogators had finished their investigation about his article.
A member of the eight-person committee of families of detained persons told Human Rights Watch that on March 23, they requested a meeting with the governor of the Eastern Province, Prince Mohammad al-Fahd bin Abd al-‘Aziz Al Sa'ud, to seek the release of more than 110 people detained at protests over the past weeks, including more than a dozen children.
His deputy, Prince Jilawi bin Abd al-‘Aziz al-Jilawi, met with the families, but refused to release the protesters unless community leaders "quieted down the streets," a person present at the meeting told Human Rights Watch. The government has not charged any of the detained protesters, but required the recently released protesters from Qatif to sign a pledge not to participate in future demonstrations.
"By arresting its peaceful critics and refusing any talk of political reform, Saudi rulers are fast becoming the last hold-outs in a region yearning for democratic change," HRW’s Wilcke said.
HRW notes that, “Throwing money around is the customary way for oil-rich Gulf potentates to deal with a problem. That is not a long-term solution and, even as a palliative, all the signs suggest it is becoming less and less effective. It may be enough to placate some disaffected Saudis, as in the past, but many others are saying money is not the issue: they want real change. The question is whether that message will get through to King Abdullah without mass protests on the streets.”
Ahmed Al-Mulla is a Saudi writer and poet. He said: "There are many of the same issues here as in Egypt and Tunisia. About 70 percent of the people are young and frustrated with no rights, no freedoms, no jobs when they graduate. Our women's rights situation is probably the worst in the world. After seeing others protest, people are becoming more aware, more are connecting online… The government is spending money to make people feel better, but it's not about money. The government tries to divide people, Shia or Sunni, but it's not about that. It's about the freedom to speak, it's about the right to protest, it's about human rights.”
HRW’s Wilke agrees. "By arresting its peaceful critics and refusing any talk of political reform, Saudi rulers are fast becoming the last hold-outs in a region yearning for democratic change," he said.