Saudi Arabia has made clear it will not tolerate unrest in its eastern province, where 14 people, 11 of them policemen, were injured in protests this week. Any further trouble would be crushed with “an iron fist,” the government warned, anxious to avoid any perception that the first green shoots of the Arab spring have started to emerge in the Gulf’s conservative heartland.
It is no surprise that the regime’s instinct has been to play down the dimensions and significance of the trouble – an “isolated incident” is the official line in Riyadh. Initial evidence of an over-reaction by security forces gave way to a pullout from the flashpoint, Awamiyah, near the regional capital Qatif, where the Saudi interior ministry accused protesters of carrying arms and throwing petrol bombs. YouTube pictures showed some of that — along with the sound of gunfire and cries of “Allahu Akbar.”
It also alleged that the trouble was directed by an unnamed “foreign country” – no prizes for guessing that meant Iran. Unofficial Saudi experts were far less coy, comparing what happened in Awamiyah to the tactics used by Shia protesters in nearby Bahrain during the Pearl Revolution earlier this year, which was also widely, and misleadingly, blamed on meddling by the Islamic republic. Reinforcing Saudi suspicions, Iranian media have hailed the trouble as a “popular uprising” against the monarchy.
Unrest in the eastern province, home to the kingdom’s 2 million-strong Shia minority and its most significant oilfields, is not new. Activists have long campaigned for equality and employment opportunities, though their demands are often painted as sectarian and treated as a security problem. Indeed, the latest unrest seems to have been sparked by the detention of two elderly men to pressure their fugitive sons to turn themselves in. The novelty this year has been the growth of an embryonic civil rights movement and a sense of empowerment created by the dramatic events elsewhere in the Arab world.
Abdul Aziz al-Saqr, chairman of the Gulf Research Centre, predicted an escalation of such incidents. Other analysts detect a strategy by Iran to make up for the weakening of its ally Syria, where Bashar al-Assad is crushing popular unrest. Al-Arabiyya, the Saudi-owned satellite TV channel, is alsopushing this explanation. But the scholar Madawi al-Rasheed commented: “The Saudis are doing what dictators everywhere always do – blaming trouble on outsiders.”
Until recently the Saudis could claim to have successfully weathered the regional turbulence. The country has seen none of the mass protests that toppled the presidents of Egypt and Tunisia and spread to nearby Yemen as well as Bahrain. In March police opened fire to disperse protesters in Qatif, with the effect that a planned “day of rage” was a damp squib.
King Abdullah has combined repression with financial largesse, pledging to spend $36bn (£23bn) on social welfare and job-creation programmes.
Yet, Rasheed has commented, this has “failed to defuse widespread anger and frustration among Saudi young people especially: over crumbling urban infrastructure, unemployment, corruption and above all arbitrary detentions and abuse of human rights.”
Plans to allow Saudi women to vote in local elections or become members of the Shura council may sound good on paper but will take years to implement and are still largely symbolic.
The Saudis’ western friends constantly urge them to improve their image, while refraining from public criticism. But as blogger Safaa al-Ahmed put it: “If change is to come to Saudi Arabia it won’t be through royal decrees.”