Archive | February, 2011

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Saudi Activists Call For Major Reforms

Posted on 28 February 2011 by hashimilion

More than 100 Saudi academics, activists and businessmen have called for major reforms including the establishment of a “constitutional monarchy” in the kingdom, in an Internet statement on Sunday.

“We will submit these requests to King Abdullah at a later stage,” said Khaled al-Dakhil, a political science professor at the King Saud University and one of the 132 signatories of the petition.

“We have high hopes that these reforms will be implemented,” Dakhil told AFP. “Now is the time.”

The petition posted on the Internet calls for the election rather than appointment of a Shura consultative council, and the creation of a constitutional monarchy — a demand that led to the arrest of activists in 2003-2004.

It also calls for expanded female participation in social and political life in the oil-rich Gulf country.

Saudi Arabia controls one-quarter of the world’s oil reserves, but unemployment among the conservative kingdom’s youth stands at 10 percent and women are largely kept out of the workforce.

Despite warnings by a senior member of the Saudi royal family, Prince Talal bin Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud, that “anything could happen” in the kingdom unless it speeded up reforms, the ageing monarchy has been slow in introducing reforms.

Another petition from journalists, lawyers and activists, labelling themselves as the “youth”, also addressed King Abdullah on Wednesday, urging him to introduce reforms.

The group demanded reducing the average number of members of the consultative council and the cabinet to 45, and 40 respectively, and allowing women to be present in both.

Saudi Arabia held landmark municipal elections in 2005, allowing citizens to choose half the members of their local councils. Women were however banned from participating.

But in 2009, the government extended the tenure of existing municipal councils by two years.

Meanwhile, two appeals for a “Day of Rage” in Saudi Arabia on March 11 have been posted on Facebook urging political, social and economic reforms in the kingdom. One had 12,600 fans by Sunday night.

Another Facebook page calls for a “Saudi revolution” on March 20, following in the steps of cyber-activists who led uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt that ousted their respective presidents Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, the latter a close ally of Riyadh.

The revolts have also spilled over into Yemen, Bahrain and Oman.

In an apparent bid to keep his citizens happy, King Abdullah last week announced a boost in social benefits for Saudis, including a 15-percent pay rise for state employees and an increase in cash available for housing loans.

The package, worth an estimated $36 billion (26 billion euros), is mostly aimed at the youth, civil servants and the unemployed and comes as uprisings against ruling regimes spread across the Arab world.

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Gulf: Rising Shias, Uneasy Sunnis

Posted on 28 February 2011 by hashimilion

They hope that the jasmine revolution will spread to the rest of the Middle East, bringing some sort of democracy throughout the region. However, there is one huge difference between North Africa and the Persian Gulf. Tunisia, Egypt and Libya are all Sunni-majority states ruled by Sunni autocrats. But it may surprise readers to learn that the Persian Gulf coast is entirely a Shia majority area, much of which is ruled by Sunni autocrats. Hence popular revolts in the Gulf nations may or may not evolve into democracy, but will certainly evolve into Shia-cracy. This terrifies the Sunni rulers.

Arabs hate the term “Persian Gulf” and call that body of water the “Arabian Gulf.” Yet the most appropriate name may be “Shia Gulf”. The Shias in the north coast of the Gulf are Persian and those in the west and southern coasts are Arab, but all are Shia regardless.

Iran and Iraq are Shia-majority countries where Shias are in power. But in other Gulf countries, the Shia majority is ruled by Sunni sheikhs— in Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. Even the Gulf coast of Saudi Arabia (which produces and exports most of its oil) has a Shia majority, although the country overall has a Sunni majority. The Saudi king has one big advantage over other Sunni rulers of the region: he is revered by all Muslims, Shia or Sunni, as the guardian of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. This makes Saudi Arabia less vulnerable to a popular Shia revolt than Bahrain (where demonstrators are already choking the streets), Kuwait or the UAE. Yet the Saudis are paranoid because all their oil lies in the Shia-majority eastern region.

This is why the Saudi king has just announced that he will spend a whopping $ 11 billion on improving welfare and housing in the Shia-majority region. He wants to buy off potential revolutionaries. Whether he will succeed remains to be seen: Bahrain’s Shia demonstrators have refused to be bought off with grants of $ 2,250 per head. Some months ago, the WikiLeaks of US confidential diplomatic papers revealed that many Gulf sheikhdoms—including Bahrain and the UAE—wanted the US to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities. The sheikhs claimed they feared armed invasion or bombing by Iran. In fact, their real fear is that a rising Iran will induce their own Shia subjects to revolt and demand democracy. The Sunni sheikhs have long cultivated the US to keep Iran at bay. But this simply induces disgust on the part of many Shia subjects, who view their rulers as not just Sunni oppressors but American stooges too. Bahrain is a small island off the Saudi Gulf coast, linked to it by a motorable causeway. Whereas Saudi Arabia is an ultra-conservative Muslim state where women must wear burqas and are not even allowed to drive cars, Bahrain is a freewheeling, westernized state where women can wear short skirts and dance all night in nightclubs. It has an elected lower house, but real power vests with the king. The democracy movement in Bahrain started off as a secular one, yet inevitably became coloured by the Shia-Sunni split.

Some analysts hope for a peaceful transition from autocracy to democracy in the Middle East. Muslim autocrats have sometimes evolved into leaders of political parties in democracies. Two examples are Gen Zia-ur Rahman in Bangladesh and Gen Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan. It is just possible that some such transition could occur in North Africa too. But this will be impossible in the Gulf, since any political party formed by the Sunni rulers will be thrashed by Shia rivals. Hence Gulf sheikhdoms are more likely to opt for the Gaddafi path of bloody suppression than the Mubarak path of exiting in favour of democracy.

This creates a moral and financial dilemma for the US. It swears in theory by democracy, but in practice dreads the replacement of Sunni sheikhs by Shia-cracies in the Gulf. It also fears that Shia revolts in the Gulf may disrupt oil supplies and send prices soaring, above all if the democracy fever spreads to Saudi Arabia.

Iran loves the thought of a completely Shia Gulf. But it also fears that its own theocracy could be toppled by a democracy movement, and that tempers its enthusiasm for the jasmine revolution. When democracy seems inconvenient to so many powerful forces, its prospects in the Gulf cannot be too bright. Its prospects in North Africa are much brighter.

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Saudi Arabia King Accused of Bribery In Attempt to Avoid Unrest

Posted on 28 February 2011 by hashimilion

Leading intellectuals in Saudi Arabia have warned that grand financial gestures are no substitute for meaningful political reform, after King Abdullah unveiled a $36bn (£22bn) social welfare package in advance of planned anti-government protests next month.

In a statement released on Thursday, a group of Saudi scholars called on the royal family to learn from recent uprisings in the Gulf and North Africa and to start listening to the voices of the kingdom’s disenfranchised young people, some of whom are planning a “day of rage” on 11 March. Several Islamic thinkers, as well as a female academic and a poet, are among those adding their names to the declaration.

“The Saudi regime is learning all the wrong lessons from Egypt and Tunisia,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Centre. “The unrest in the region is not fundamentally economic, it’s fundamentally about politics. Economics plays a role but what the events of the past few months have shown us is that Arabs are looking for freedom, dignity and democracy – and if the Saudi leadership can’t see that, then they’re in trouble.”

Saudi Arabia’s 86-year-old monarch returned home this week from three months in hospital abroad, and immediately announced a vast package of welfare measures including new education and housing subsidies, the creation of 1,200 jobs and a 15% pay rise for all government employees.

But analysts believe the king – who promised far-reaching political reform when he ascended to the throne in 2005, only to make little effort in tackling the political status quo – has misjudged the grievances of his population.

The kingdom remains an absolute monarchy with few outlets for dissent, with public policy-making concentrated almost entirely in the hands of the ruling family.

“We’re seeing a lack of vision on the part of Saudi leaders right now,” said Hamid. “They’re trying to bribe people into quietude. It’s cynical, predictable, and it’s not necessarily going to work, at least in the long run – I don’t believe anyone thinks Saudi Arabia is going to fall tomorrow, but it’s not immune from unrest. It’s actually quite surprising that King Abdullah hasn’t taken this opportunity to move faster on political reform.”

Despite its oil wealth, Saudi Arabia features many of the underlying demographics that have helped spark rebellions in other Arab nations. Almost half the population is under the age of 18 and, unlike in other Gulf states, some of which boast close to full employment, 40% of 20- to 24-year-old Saudis are out of work.

Many young people are turning to online social media sites to exchange information and ideas.”The level to which young people in Saudi Arabia are connected to the rest of the world, and particularly the Arab world, is staggering,” Mai Yamani, a prominent Saudi author, told the Guardian.

“The flow of ideas being shared amongst this generation has no borders. The same anguish and demands being voiced by Arab youth elsewhere is inspiring youth in Saudi Arabia as well. In this climate, the days of using oil money to secure the subservience of citizens is over.”

So far the announcement on Facebook of a day of protest next month has been met with little open enthusiasm; in contrast to similar calls in Egypt and Tunisia which garnered tens of thousands of supporters, the Saudi web page is followed by only a few hundred supporters.

But in a kingdom where the current laws and social mores work predominantly to the benefit of ethnically Saudi males following the Sunni branch of Islam, some analysts have estimated that up to 20 million of the kingdom’s 27 million people – including women, Shia Muslims and some 7.5 million guest workers from Asia – feel dangerously detached from the state, amounting to a potentially potent groundswell of opposition.

“Saudi Arabia has had an undercurrent of unrest and anger towards the regime for decades now, it’s always been there bubbling underneath the surface,” claimed Hamid. “The question is when it’s going to explode.”

But he added that calls for a complete overhaul of the monarchy remained unlikely. “We have two regional models of change: one is the Egyptian, Tunisian and Libyan model of overthrowing the regime, and the other is the Moroccan and Jordanian model of shifting from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy, and that applies to Saudi Arabia as well. I don’t think there’s a hunger for a complete break in the system.”

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Saudi Arabia’s Watchful Eye Looms Over Bahrain Unrest

Posted on 28 February 2011 by hashimilion

On Wednesday morning, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa boarded a plane to pay his respects to King Abdullah of neighboring Saudi Arabia, who had returned home after months abroad for medical treatments.

It was a trip that underscored the extent of Saudi Arabia’s sway over the teardrop-shaped island off its eastern shore, as well the prospect that the turbulence still whirling in tiny Bahrain could have outsize repercussions in its giant neighbor.

A day after tens of thousands of protesters turned out in Bahrain’s capital, the king is still under pressure from demonstrators who are demanding that he make democratic concessions or step aside. The Shiite-led protesters in Bahrain are demanding that the Sunni royal family grant them equal rights and an equal voice, and majority-Sunni Saudi Arabia is worried that their campaign might give ideas to its own large Shiite minority.

In a sign of its own concerns, the Saudi government announced Wednesday that it will pump $10.7 billion into a fund that gives interest-free loans to citizens and that government workers will receive a 15 percent wage increase, among other measures. Bahrain also gave cash to households just before protests erupted last week.

“Saudi Arabia fears a constitutional monarchy in Bahrain,” said Kristin Smith Diwan, an assistant professor at American University who studies Islamic movements in the Persian Gulf. “It’s about empowerment of the Shia and what that might mean for Shia in the eastern province” of Saudi Arabia, she said, in addition to fears about Iran’s influence, which she deemed largely unjustified.

“In this current crisis, none of the solutions look good for Saudi Arabia,” Diwan said. “A crackdown in Bahrain would be destabilizing. A reform itself would be destabilizing, unless Saudi Arabia was willing to make some reforms.”

The two countries are taking a cautious stance. Saudi Arabia controls large sectors of Bahrain’s economy, both through outright gifts of oil and through investment in Bahraini banks, businesses and real estate. And its military is just a 16-mile drive away over the King Fahd Causeway, which was built at least in part for precisely that strategic reason, observers say. In a sign of Bahraini fears, rumors constantly swirl on Manama’s streets about Saudi troop movements and an imminent invasion.

“Although we are friends, the [Bahraini] leadership is afraid of the Saudis,” said one Bahraini observer with close ties to government security officials. “The Bahrainis don’t want to do like what happened between Syria and Lebanon. When Syria went into Lebanon, they did not leave.”

Hamad is likely to tell Abdullah that “we still don’t need” Saudi military assistance, said the Bahraini observer, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on behalf of the government. “He will tell them we are coping.”

But Bahrain’s business-friendly, Western orientation – which, unlike in much of the gulf, allows women to walk with bare arms and alcohol to be readily available in restaurants – also serves as an escape valve for Saudis seeking a break from their country’s stricter rules, analysts said. The Bahraini government has also tried in recent years to clamp down on prostitution, another booming trade on the island.

In recent years, an expanded American military presence has provided a counterweight to Saudi influence. The U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet is docked just south of Manama, somewhat easing Bahraini fears of a Saudi invasion, Bahraini observers said.

“Bahrain’s survival really depends on two countries, the United States of America and Saudi Arabia,” said Mansoor al-Jamri, a leading Shiite opposition figure who is editor in chief of the independent Bahraini newspaper al-Wasat.

And in the current situation, Jamri said, the possibility of military intervention is unlikely, given the events of last week, when the army and police fired on protesters, killing seven people.

Anti-government demonstrators continued to camp in Manama’s Pearl Square on Wednesday, their ranks swelled by thousands of people welcoming prisoners whom Hamad had released in a bid to facilitate negotiations.

Among those released were 23 prisoners who had been held since August, accused of plotting to overthrow the king and engaging in terrorist activities. Many of the former detainees alleged that they had been tortured and beaten while in prison.

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Saudi Influence Could Be Key To Outcome In Bahrain

Posted on 28 February 2011 by hashimilion

Even as mainly Shiite Muslim protesters camp out in Pearl Square demanding major reforms, the deciding factor in the outcome for Bahrain could be neighboring Saudi Arabia.

Behind the scenes and away from the streets, Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally and top oil supplier, is seeking to return to the status quo in Bahrain – or at least to slow down calls for change. That Bahrain’s Shiite majority could gain more rights and powers from the ruling Sunni Muslims, Saudis think, could lead to unrest among their own Shiites, who live in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province. In that case, reforms and economic incentives might not be enough to stop a movement from spreading there.

Bahrain is the first Persian Gulf country to be hit by the unrest that’s sweeping the Middle East, and Saudi Arabia is one of the last U.S. allies in the region since the regimes in Egypt and Tunisia fell. Although Bahrain is a tiny island of less than a million, what happens here could unleash calls for change in the much larger and powerful Saudi Arabia. It’s a case of Goliath fearing David’s wrath.

At stake are oil prices, which are now at their highest since October 2008, and even relations with the United States, which is walking a fine line between promoting the will of the people and supporting a longstanding ally.

In Saudi Arabia, officials already have quashed several small attempts to launch protests against some government decisions. Three days after the revolt began in Egypt, for example, roughly 50 residents protested the government response to deadly floods in Jeddah. They were promptly arrested.

Protesters in Manama are calling for Bahrain to become a constitutional monarchy, rather than an absolute one. Such a shift probably would give the Shiite majority more power. As the Saudis see it, that represents instability for them; Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority could then rise up and ask for more freedoms its own.

Protesters in Manama threatened Wednesday to lash out at the Saudi regime if it thwarted their efforts, though they refused to give their names.

“If they stop us, we will go there,” one protester yelled.

For Saudi Arabia, the best outcome in Bahrain is enough change to pacify protesters but not so much that it risks government structure, said James Denselow, a Middle East writer and former researcher for Chatham House, a policy research center in London.

“Instability could not get more on Saudi’s doorstep than Bahrain,” Denselow said. “The outcome that Saudi Arabia wants is … for everybody to leave the streets and that small changes be managed by the elite. They want a slow process.”

As with much of what happens in Bahrain, Saudi influence occurs under a veil of secrecy. But there have been some telling signs of the scale of Saudi impact. Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa left the country Wednesday for the first time since the unrest began to meet his Saudi counterpart, King Abdullah, who had just returned home hours earlier after three months of medical treatment in the U.S. and recovery in Morocco. Observers said they think that the Bahraini king consulted with the Saudis over what to do next.

Earlier in the week, the Saudi Council of Ministers said in a statement: “The kingdom will stand by the sisterly state of Bahrain with all its capabilities,” which some Shiites in Bahrain interpreted as a threat to send military aid.

Many think that Saudi influence – coupled with a sizable minority here that has benefited from a Bahrain guided by Saudi Arabia – will thwart efforts for major reform, even as crowds remain camped out at Pearl Square, the main demonstration site. Bahrain’s crown prince has called for national dialogue, but neither the government nor the Shiite opposition groups have codified their positions, and discussions have yet to get under way.

Instead, the Bahraini monarchy said it had released 308 political prisoners since Tuesday; opponents said 12-year-olds were among them, and many of them joined protesters at Pearl Square.

On Wednesday, before King Abdullah landed back in Saudi Arabia, the Saudis announced that they will spend billions of dollars on economic aid to help their more impoverished citizens buy homes and start businesses in an attempt to keep protests from rising in the kingdom. Two weeks ago, the Saudis gave nearly $3,000 to every family in the country.

The Bahraini economy, which generates roughly $25 billion of gross domestic product annually, depends equally on tourism, the government, industry and financial services. Three of those four sectors account for around three-fourths of the GDP, and they’re directly or indirectly tied to Saudi Arabia. Saudis invest in Bahraini banks to conduct finances outside the watchful eye of the regime; Saudi Arabian oil revenues fund the Bahraini government; and three-day jaunts of escapism are key to Bahraini tourism.

“Saudi Arabia is not just a big neighbor to the west; it is safe to say that they have had a major influence on the economic development of Bahrain. The operating budget of the government is mostly oil related, 75 percent of which is of Saudi origin,” said a Western official here, speaking only on the condition of anonymity in order to be more candid. “That buys them a certain amount of influence.”

There are important social impacts as well. Many call Bahrain Saudi Arabia’s Las Vegas.

As soon as some Saudi women, who are banned from driving in their home country, enter Bahrain on the King Fahd Causeway, they jump into the driver’s seat. They take themselves to places such as the Arabic disco on the top floor of the Riviera hotel and pay hundreds of dollars to sit freely in Islamic garb and enjoy cold beers. Scantily clad women greet Saudi men at another bar downstairs.

Three days later, the Saudis whisk themselves over the bridge again and back into one of the most conservative societies in the world.

But Bahrain, the Saudis’ much-needed release valve, now has closed off. Traffic along the causeway between the countries has dropped dramatically, Bahraini officials who work on the border said, and businesses that cater to Saudis said their dealings had come virtually to a standstill. Indeed, supporters of the regime said the economic impact was a big reason to stop the protests.

Riviera hotel manager Mohammed al Shihab said that usually 50 percent of his patrons were Saudis. But only a handful of his 65 rooms are occupied these days. There are no reservations at the Arabic disco, just four fully stocked refrigerators of beer and refreshments. At the Sweetheart bar downstairs, four women in strapless dresses smoked hookahs and waited for the men who never arrived.

These days, Shihab said, he’s closed the Arabic disco altogether: “I can’t keep a disco open for four people.”

He said he wished the protests would stop; Bahrain can’t afford it.

“Now there is no life here,” he said. “Everybody is losing.”

By NANCY A. YOUSSEF

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Watching Bahrain, Saudi Shi’ites Demand Reforms

Posted on 22 February 2011 by hashimilion

When Saudi Shi’ites mark the birthday of the Prophet Mohammad, meeting at mosques and exchanging sweets is only part of what’s going on.

The Shi’ites also are testing the tolerance of Sunni clerics and taking advantage of reforms introduced by King Abdullah that allow them greater freedom to practise their branch of Islamic faith.

For the hundreds of Shi’ites who gathered on Sunday in the rundown eastern town of Awwamiya, near the Gulf coast, this year is special.

Just an hour’s drive and a bridge away is the island nation of Bahrain, usually a place where Saudis go for a bit of weekend fun but now the scene of a majority Shi’ite uprising that is challenging the minority Sunnis’ grip on power.

“You need to demand reforms and start popular movements if you want to achieve something. If you don’t do anything the government will not act,” said Mohammed, a young man who, like others, gave only his first name.

“You need to make use of the fact that the regime is in a weak position,” he said, referring to anti-government protests sweeping across the Arab world after popular uprisings toppled the rulers of Tunisia and Egypt.

Mohammed used the Arabic word ‘nizam’ for ‘regime’ — the same word shouted by thousands of Egyptian protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to demand change.

Normally fear of landing in jail would curb such talk, but television images of protests and rapid Internet communication are making people think about what might be possible.

Analysts do not expect Egyptian or Tunisian-style unrest in Saudi Arabia, where the government sits on more than $400 billion in petrodollars that can be used to alleviate social pressures such as high youth unemployment.

But they say the elderly King Abdullah will face pressure from Shi’ites watching protests in Bahrain to give them a greater say and start some political reforms, such as calling municipal elections.

So far, Shi’ites are not represented in the cabinet, and often complain of attacks by hardline Sunni clerics who see them as heretics or even agents of Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main rival.

“We follow events in Bahrain closely due to the geographical proximity, the shared religion and because we also have demands for reform,” said Khoder Awwami, a young Shi’ite preacher.

Saudi Arabia was stung by the loss of a key ally in Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and events in Bahrain, where it backs the ruling Sunni al-Khalifa family.

Moderate Shi’ite leaders say King Abdullah may announce higher benefits — also expected by analysts — after returning from medical treatment. But that may not be enough to appease young people demanding a voice in the conservative kingdom.

“Will economic reforms have a long-term effect to satisfy people? I think some also want real reforms,” said Tawfiq al-Saif, a leading Shi’ite intellectual in the kingdom.

Offering some hope was the release on Sunday of three Shi’ites held in jail for more than a year, days after residents say activists staged a small but rare protest calling for them to be freed.

“I think the regime saw the necessity to defuse the situation,” said a young man who gave his name as Hussain.

In a small mosque illuminated by green and yellow lights to mark the Prophet’s birthday, dozens lined up to meet the three former prisoners.

“I was in prison over a year. I’m so happy to be here,” said released blogger Muneer al-Jasas, smiling widely and shaking hands.

NIMR’S CALL

Abdullah has given Shi’ites more freedom since 2005 but the outlook for his reforms is uncertain as he is around 87 years old. The slightly younger Crown Prince Sultan spent much of the past two years out of the kingdom for sickness.

With both in their 80s, succession is looming.

Interior Minister Prince Nayef, who is close to the Wahhabi clerics who uphold the kingdom’s austere brand of Sunni Islam, would have the best chance to become king after being promoted in 2009 to second deputy prime minister, analysts say.

Tensions flared in the Eastern Province in 2009 after Shi’ite preacher Nimr al-Nimr from Awwamiya suggested in a sermon that Shi’ites could one day seek their own state — a call heard only rarely since the 1979 Iranian revolution, which triggered some unrest among Saudi Shi’ites.

Since then calm has returned after moderate Shi’ite leaders distanced themselves from Nimr’s call.

There are no official figures about the Shi’ite minority.

“The government says Shi’ites make up 5 percent of the total population but I looked at the latest census data village by village and think it’s rather eight to 12 percent,” said Ibrahim al-Mugaiteb, head of the independent First Human Rights Society.

While Shi’ites can practise their faith in Awwamiya and nearby towns, they would get in trouble if they tried to do so in the neighbouring communities of Dammam or Khobar, he said.

Dammam, a port city with a large Shi’ite population, has just one mosque serving them. Authorities do not permit new ones, the U.S. State Department said in its annual International Religious Freedom report in November.

Anti-government graffiti on walls in Awwamiya reflect simmering anger. Residents say workers repainted a wall but Shi’ite slogans quickly returned.

CRUMBLING PAINT

Shi’ite leaders who went into exile after the 1979 protests returned in the 1990s under a deal with the government. Moderate leaders say things are better than a decade ago, but they fear losing control of a younger population frustrated with a lack of reforms.

Jafar al-Shayab, a member of the municipal council in the nearby Shi’ite town of Qatif, said authorities needed to offer the Internet-savvy young people a voice or risk losing them.

“My daughter didn’t find a job for a year after university graduation in IT,” said Shayeb, adding that she had joined a Facebook group where other unemployed gather.

Despite being home to most of Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth, the Eastern Province is visibly less affluent than the Saudi capital of Riyadh, with paint crumbling from old houses and roads full of potholes.

In a sign that the government wants to reach out more to Shi’ites, regional governor Prince Mohammed bin Fahd, an ally of Prince Nayef, made a rare visit to Qatif last week.

Iran’s rising influence since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq produced a Shi’ite government in Baghdad and also revived official fears that Shi’ites could become a fifth column against the Saudi state, analysts say.

Leaked U.S. diplomatic cables quoted King Abdullah as urging Washington to attack Iran to destroy its nuclear programme, and analysts say Nayef also appears to be a hawk on Iran.

Simon Henderson, a Washington-based analyst on Saudi affairs, said Riyadh faced the dilemma of hoping that protests in Bahrain would end peacefully while fearing a greater role in government by majority Shi’ites.

The U.S. naval base in Manama is vital for Riyadh, providing U.S. military protection of Saudi oil installations and the Gulf waterways on which its oil exports depend, without any Western troops present on the soil of the kingdom, Islam’s birthplace.

“It is hard to see what meaningful reform is in Bahrain unless it is a Shi’ite-controlled government. The Saudis won’t want this,” Henderson said.

By Ulf Laessing

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Dhahyan Demonstration

Posted on 22 February 2011 by hashimilion

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Tunisia Seeks To Extradite Ben Ali’s wife

Posted on 22 February 2011 by hashimilion

Tunisia on Monday formally asked Saudi Arabia to extradite the wife of ousted strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and took steps to dissolve his ruling party as protests continued against the struggling caretaker government.

Authorities “have made an official request to Saudi authorities through diplomatic channels for the extradition of Leila Trabelsi, the wife of the ousted president,” state TAP news agency said, quoting the foreign ministry.

Tunis has already asked Riyadh to extradite 74-year-old Ben Ali for his involvement “in several serious crimes aimed at perpetrating and inciting voluntary homicide and sowing discord” among Tunisians.

Ben Ali and his family fled to Saudi Arabia on January 14 after an unprecedented popular uprising. He was reported last week to have fallen into a coma after suffering a stroke and was being treated in a hospital in Jeddah.

The European Union decided earlier this month to freeze the assets of 46 members of his entourage.

A former hairdresser, Trabelsi is accused of pillaging the country through endemic corruption, putting family members in key government and lucrative business posts.

Interior Minister Farhat Rajhi announced that he had officially requested to dissolve Ben Ali’s powerful Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party, two weeks after suspending its activities and closing its offices.

Despite its seemingly perennial power, the RCD, founded in 1988 by Ben Ali, had a tiny membership of some two million, roughly a fifth of the population.

And while the revolution forced out the former president, the caretaker government of Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi continues to face protests by angry demonstrators demanding to root out vestiges of the old regime.

About one thousand protesters, mostly students, Monday rallied for a second day in Tunis against what they called the “hypocrites” in the transitional government.

“We want the government to fall. Ghannouchi and his ministers want to stay beyond the period of transition,” said on student organisaer Ali Amdouni.

Ghannouchi was prime minister under Ben Ali for over a decade since 1999.

On January 17, he took the reins of a transitional government of national unity, which included many ministers who were part of the old regime.

The authorities have appointed a panel to prepare free elections due in six months while several opposition parties have demanded the election of a constituent assembly to write a new constitution.

Meanwhile Tunisian authorities on Monday arrested the suspected killer of a Polish priest who was found with his throat slit last week, which had raised fears extremists could be behind the murder, TAP reported.

Police arrested Chokri Ben Mustapha Bel-Sadek El-Mestiri, 43, a carpenter who worked at the same religious school where the priest Marek Rybinski was employed as accountant, TAP said, citing the interior ministry.

Rybinski was found dead on Friday, provoking condemnation from the transitional government and the main Islamist opposition group Ennahda (Awakening).

Authorities originally attributed the murder to extremists based “on the way” the priest was attacked.

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