Archive | March, 2011

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Saudi Shi’ites Protests in Oil Province

Posted on 09 March 2011 by hashimilion

Saudi Shi’ites have started staging small protests in the kingdom’s Eastern Province, the source of much of the Gulf Arab state’s oil wealth.

The top oil exporter and U.S. ally has so far avoided unrest like in Egypt or Tunisia but Shi’ite protests have made markets worried whether Saudi Arabia is insulated from larger anti-government demonstrations.

Saudi Arabia applies the Wahhabi austere version of Sunni Islam, and minority Shi’ites say that, while their situation has improved slightly under reforms launched by King Abdullah, they still face many restrictions and discrimination. The government denies these charges.

WHAT DO SAUDI SHI’ITES DEMAND?

Shi’ites have long complained of second class status in the absolute monarchy. They also want the release of Shi’ite prisoners, some of whom were arrested during previous protests.

Shi’ites, who make up to 15 percent of the 19 million Saudi population, say they are not represented in the cabinet, they struggle to land senior government and security jobs and are viewed as heretics or even agents of Iran by the Saudi authorities and hardline Sunni clerics.

Despite being home to most of Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth, the Eastern Province is less affluent than the capital Riyadh or other Saudi cities. The government has announced investments in the Shi’ite main Gulf coast stronghold of Qatif, but Shi’ites say their villages are underdeveloped and neglected.

Under reforms started by King Abdullah, Shi’ites say they can now practice their faith relatively freely in Qatif but want recognition and equal benefits enjoyed by Sunni counterparts.

In petitions and meeting with top officials, Shi’ites have demanded for years to open mosques and worship places outside Qatif. The port city of Dammam has only one Shi’ite mosque and nearby Khobar none despite many Shi’ites living there.

Authorities have closed at least nine places of worship in Khobar and the Ahsa region, the U.S. government said in a report in November. Shi’ite activists say authorities have signalled since protests started that places of worship in Khobar might be allowed but caution that similar promises were made in the past.

 

CAN SHI’ITES PROTESTS GET LARGER?

Since protests started in the Qatif area the marches have grown, drawing up to 200 each time and spreading to Hofuf, more than 100 kilometres south of Qatif.

Moderate Shi’ite leaders say they struggle to restrain frustrated young people emboldened by protests of their brethern against the Sunni Al Khalifa ruling family in nearby Bahrain.

“All the oil comes from here but we don’t benefit. We want jobs, housing,” shouted a young man at a protest in Qatif last week.

But the protests are still smaller and more peaceful than in 2009 when hundreds of Shi’ites clashed with police after firebrand preacher Nimr al-Nimr broke a taboo by suggesting that Shi’ites could one day seek their own state — a call heard only rarely since the 1979 Iranian revolution, which stirred unrest among Saudi Shi’ites.

Shi’ite leaders who went into exile after the 1979 protests returned in the 1990s under a deal with the government.

But Iran’s rising influence, especially since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, which empowered that country’s Shi’ite majority, has also revived official fears that Shi’ites could become a fifth column against the Saudi state.

Protesters this time have held up posters saying they do not want to overthrow the government.

Several Shi’ite leaders have signed petitions together with moderate Sunni activists across the country asking the king to hold elections in the absolute monarchy which has no elected parliament.

Many young Shi’ites say they back a general call by activists on Facebook to stage a “Day of Rage” across Saudi Arabia on Friday but it is unclear how many will respond as the government has warned that such protests are illegal.

 

WHAT ARE THE CHANCES OF PROTESTS AFFECTING OIL FACILITIES?

Many Shi’ites in the eastern province work in the oil industry, especially at state giant Saudi Aramco so they have no interest in disrupting oil flows and their livelihood. Their conditions are better than Shi’ites in Bahrain or Iraq as they still benefit from a welfare state though complain they get less than Sunnis. An estimated 10,000 Shi’ites study abroad on government grants.

HOW MANY SHI’ITES LIVE IN SAUDI ARABIA ?

There are no official figures. Government officials say less than 10 percent of Saudis are Shi’ites but human rights activists and diplomats put it up to 12-15 percent. Most Shi’ites live in the east near Bahrain, where Shi’ites challenge the Sunni government but there are also Shi’ites living in the holy city of Medina and some in Jeddah in western Saudi Arabia.

Shi’ites of the Ismaili sect are in the majority in Najran near the Yemen border, where no protests have been reported yet. Their community leaders say they face restrictions in getting senior state jobs but authorities have reached out more to them to win their loyalty in the volatile Yemen border region.

 

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Saudi Arabia is Losing Its Fear

Posted on 09 March 2011 by hashimilion

In Riyadh the mood is tense; everyone is on edge wondering what will happen on Friday – the date the Saudi people have chosen for their revolution. The days building up to Friday so far have not been as reassuring as one would like.

On 4 March, there were protests in the eastern region and a smaller protest here in Riyadh. The protests in the eastern region were mainly to call for the release of Sheikh Tawfiq al-Amer, who had been detained after giving a sermon calling for a constitutional monarchy.

The protest in Riyadh was started by a young Sunni man, Mohammed al-Wadani, who had uploaded a YouTube video a few days before, explaining why the monarchy has to fall. After the protests, 26 people were detained in the eastern region and al-Wadani was taken in soon after he held up his sign near a major mosque in Riyadh.

It’s not just the people who are on edge; apparently the government is also taking this upcoming Friday seriously. Surprisingly, Sheikh Amer was released on Sunday, while usually political detentions take much longer.

All this week, government agencies have been issuing statements banning protests. First it was the interior ministry that promised to take all measures necessary to prevent protests. Then the highest religious establishment, the Council of Senior Clerics, deemed protests and petitions as un-Islamic. The Shura Council, our government-appointed pretend-parliament, also threw its weight behind the interior ministry’s ban and the religious decree of prohibition. But you can’t blame the clerics or the Shura for making these statements – the status quo is what’s keeping them in power and comfortable.

Saudis are now faced with a ban on any form of demonstration, and the blocking and censorship of petitions. Moreover, four newspaper writers who had signed one of the petitions are now suspended.

Saudis feel cornered, with little means of self-expression and at the same time exposed to news and opinions that only add salt to the wound. For example, Prince Talal Bin Abdul Aziz, the king’s half-brother, went on BBC Arabic TV to state his support for a constitutional monarchy and warn that anything less will lead to “evils” (his word).

Meanwhile, a newspaper reported that an expatriate was sentenced to 14 months in prison and 80 lashes for stealing part of a chicken from a restaurant. In response to the news, Abdulrahman Allahim, an award-winning Saudi human rights lawyer, tweeted that in his experience he had never come across a case in Saudi courts where a defendant was given a verdict of not guilty.

In Jeddah, a committee that has spent more than a year investigating the disappearance of millions of public funds assigned to the municipality to build a sewerage system has yet to make one formal accusation against anyone.

Another article revealed that the unemployment benefits recently decreed by the king have been whittled down from 3,000 riyals (£490) a month to 1,000 riyals (£165) and will probably only be given to unemployed men but not women.

The official unemployment rate of men is 10%, although many estimate it to be higher. The unemployment rate for women is yet to be officially announced but a study in 2010 estimated it at more than 26%.

It’s also estimated that about 60% of the population is under 30. These young, unemployed people live with many constrictions on their freedom. In addition to extreme gender segregation, single men are banned from entering shopping malls, and women cannot process their own papers, get a job or even access transport without male accompaniment and approval.

There’s no denying that the country is fertile ground for a revolution. However, I am concerned that the revolution might be hijacked by Islamists. Sa’ad al-Faqih, a London-based anti-monarchy activist, is claiming the revolution for himself. His TV programme, which is accessible via satellite in Saudi, is organising protest locations and revving up viewers to participate. Another contender is the new Islamic Umma party, whose founding members are imprisoned until they renounce their political aspirations (they have so far refused). Although the founding members are not free, the party’s online activity grows day by day. Both groups make use of a rhetoric that is dear to many average Saudis – attacking US foreign policy and the royal family’s misuse of the nation’s wealth while threading both issues within an Islamic theme.

On the other hand, the king is popular. All the petitions call for a constitutional monarchy, rather than the fall of the monarchy. Those who signed the petitions are mostly loyal to the king, but want access to decision-making and an end to corruption.

Also, many of the signatories are thinkers, writers and academics – generally an elite group of Saudis. From what I’ve read, nothing indicates they will go out to protest. However, one political activist who has been imprisoned several times for writing petitions was noticeably absent from recent lists of signatories. When a close friend of mine asked him why, he said, “now is not the time to sign petitions, now is the time to act”.

It’s very difficult to predict what will happen on Friday. My guess is that there will be protests. The larger protests will be in the eastern region and mostly by Shia Muslims. I also expect smaller protests in Riyadh and Jeddah. What tactics the security forces use will greatly influence not only the demonstrators but also the people watching from their homes. If undue violence is used against the demonstrators, it could possibly ignite the same fuse that led to full-blown revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

Whether or not it comes to that, we as a people have changed for ever. No longer do I see the frightened hushing of political discussion – everyone is saying what they believe and aspire for out in the open without fear. As Fouad Alfarhan, a prominent Saudi activist, tweeted:

“Probably not much will happen, however the biggest gain is the awareness raised in a large faction of our young people of their human and political rights in this post-Bouazizi world.”

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Saudi Arabia Bans All Marches As Mass Protest Is Planned on Friday

Posted on 08 March 2011 by hashimilion

Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil producer and the regional domino whose fall the West fears most, yesterday announced that it would ban all protests and marches. The move – the stick to match the carrot of benefits worth $37bn (£23bn) recently offered citizens in an effort to stave off the unrest that has overtaken nearby states – comes before a “day of rage” threatened for this Friday by opponents of the regime.

The Saudi Interior Ministry said the kingdom has banned all demonstrations because they contradict Islamic laws and social values. The ministry said some people have tried to get around the law to “achieve illegitimate aims” and it warned that security forces were authorised to act against violators. By way of emphasis, a statement broadcast on Saudi television said the authorities would “use all measures” to prevent any attempt to disrupt public order.

Already, as The Independent reported yesterday, the ruling House of Saud had drafted security forces, possibly numbering up to 10,000, into the north-eastern provinces. These areas, home to most of the country’s Shia Muslim minority, have been the scenes of small demonstrations in recent weeks by protesters calling for the release of prisoners who they say are being held without trial. Saudi Shias also complain that they find it much harder to get senior government jobs and benefits than other citizens.

Not only are the Shia areas close to Bahrain, scene of some potent unrest in recent weeks, but they are also where most of the Saudi oil fields lie. More than two million Shias are thought to live there, and in recent years they have increasingly practised their own religious rites thanks to the Saudi king’s reforms.

But the day of protest called for this Friday was – perhaps still is – likely to attract more than restive Shias in the east. There have been growing murmurs of discontent in recent weeks; protesters have not only been much emboldened by the success of popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, but online channels of communication by those contemplating rebellion have been established. Some estimates indicate that as many as 20,000 were planning to protest in Riyadh, as well as in the east, on Friday.

The jitters of the Saudi regime will be at least equalled in many parts of the world where sympathy for democracy movements is tempered by a reliance on petrol, which most people – for all the special pleading of the haulage industry – can just about afford. Saudi Arabia sits on a fifth of the world’s oil reserves.

The past week, with conflict disrupting all but a trickle of Libya’s oil production, has seen the Brent barrel price climb to $103, with UK pump prices swiftly going up to £1.30 a litre. The rise in the price per barrel was caused not just by the Libyan strife – the country produces only 2 per cent of the planet’s oil needs – but also by the prospect of further unrest in the region, although not the threat of full-scale breakdown in Saudi Arabia.

Yesterday, alarmist voices were not slow to exploit fears. Alan Duncan, an international aid minister and a former oil trader, raised the prospect in an interview with The Times of the price of crude rising well beyond 2008’s record of $140 a barrel, to $200 or more.

“Do you want to be paying £4 a litre for petrol?” he asked. “I’ve been saying in government for two months that if this does go wrong, £1.30 at the pump could look like luxury.” He outlined a “worst-case scenario” in which serious regional upheaval could propel the price to $250 a barrel, and thence to British drivers paying £2.03 a litre. London is now considering not imposing the planned 1p rise in fuel duty.

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Protesters Call for Saudi to Free Shiite Detainees

Posted on 05 March 2011 by hashimilion

Several hundred people protested on Friday in the Shiite-majority east of Saudi Arabia, calling for the release of an arrested cleric and other detainees, witnesses said.

An appeal was made on Facebook for a “Day of Rage” on Friday in the kingdom’s east to demand the release of Sheikh Tawfiq al-Aamer, a Shiite cleric arrested on Sunday.

Hundreds of people protested after Friday prayers in the town of Al-Houfouf for the release of Aamer and others, witnesses said.

A similar protest was held in Al-Qatif but was dispersed by police, witnesses said.

On Thursday night, 22 people were arrested as police dispersed a protest in Al-Qatif that was demanding the release of prisoners, said Ibrahim al-Mugaiteeb, the president of Human Rights First in Saudi Arabia.

“The protesters demanded the liberation of nine ‘forgotten’ prisoners in Al-Qatif, and also of Sheikh al-Aamer, whose picture they carried, and called for national unity between Sunnis and Shiites,” Mugaiteeb told AFP by telephone.

Aamer was arrested “after calling for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy” in the kingdom, which is currently ruled by an absolute monarch, according to the website www.rasid.com, which specialises in information on Saudi Shiites.

Shiites, who are mainly concentrated in the oil-rich eastern province, make up about 10 percent of the Saudi population. They complain of marginalisation in the country, which is dominated by the puritanical Wahhabi Sunni doctrine.

The eastern province borders Bahrain, a Shiite-majority kingdom ruled by a Sunni dynasty that has been rocked by anti-government protests since February 14.

Meanwhile, at least three people were arrested after repeating slogans against the Saudi monarchy in Riyadh, witnesses said.

A dozen men gathered at the exit of the Al-Rajhi mosque, one of the most important in Riyadh, repeating slogans denouncing “oppression” and the monarchy, according to witnesses.

They were attacked by worshippers before the police intervened and arrested at least three people, including one of the leaders of the small demonstration, the witnesses added.

Activists have called on Facebook for a “Day of Rage” on March 11 and for a “Saudi revolution” on March 20.

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Shi’ites Stage Protest in Saudi Oil Province

Posted on 04 March 2011 by hashimilion

Shi’ites staged a protest in Saudi Arabia’s oil-producing Eastern Province on Thursday, demanding the release of prisoners they say are being held without trial, witnesses said.

Mostly young men marched through the small town of Awwamiya, near the Shi’ite centre of Qatif on the Gulf coast.

“Peaceful, peaceful,” the demonstrators shouted, holding up pictures of Shi’ites they say have been long held without trial, while policemen stood by without interfering.

Last month, Saudi authorities released three prisoners after a previous protest by Shi’ites in Awwamiya.

“They demand the release of prisoners, only this,” Zaki al-Saleh, an Shi’ite activist and resident told reporters, although he did not participate in the demonstration.

A group of women also followed the protest.

Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy without an elected parliament that usually does not tolerate public dissent.

Saudi Arabia’s Shi’ite minority mostly live in the Eastern province, which holds much of the oil wealth of the world’s top crude exporter and is near Bahrain, scene of protests by majority Shi’ites against their Sunni rulers.

Saudi Arabia applies an austere Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam and Shi’ites say that, while their situation has improved under reforms launched by King Abdullah, they still face restrictions in getting senior government jobs.

The government denies these charges.

The demonstration was much smaller than protests staged in Awwamiya in 2009 after police launched a search for firebrand Shi’ite preacher Nimr al-Nimr, who had suggested in a sermon that Shi’ites could one day seek their own separate state.

The secessionist threat, which analysts say was unprecedented since the 1979 Iranian revolution, provoked anti-government protests, and was followed by clashes between the Sunni religious police and Shi’ite pilgrims near the tomb of Prophet Mohammad in the holy city of Medina.

Since then, Shi’ites say the situation has calmed down but they are still waiting for promised reforms to be carried out.

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Saudi Arabia Planning Cabinet Reshuffle

Posted on 04 March 2011 by hashimilion

Saudi Arabia is to announce a major cabinet reshuffle soon as the four-year term for the current council of ministers has expired, an official told AFP on Wednesday.

The term of the cabinet formed on March 22, 2007 expired 21 days ago based on the lunar Islamic calendar followed in the conservative kingdom.

“The government’s mandate has expired, but due to the king’s absence, the announce of the reshuffle has been delayed,” the official said.

King Abdullah, who is also the prime minister, returned to Riyadh on February 23, after being away for three months for medical treatment.

“We can expect significant changes of some ministers,” said the official, who declined to comment on speculations over replacing Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal and Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi.

King Abdullah kept the line-up of ministers unchanged when he ascended the throne after the death of his brother King Fahd in 2005.

In February 2009, he appointed new education, justice and information ministers, a new supreme court chief and a new head of the consultative Shura council, along with the nomination of a deputy education minister for women’s education.

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Indonesia Petitions Saudi Arabia to spare maid

Posted on 04 March 2011 by hashimilion

Indonesia said on Wednesday it had appealed to Saudi Arabia to commute the beheading of a maid convicted of killing her employer in what she called an act of self-defence.

A court in the Saudi capital of Riyadh sentenced the maid, Darsem, to death for murdering her Yemeni employer in December 2007, foreign ministry spokeswoman Kusuma Habir told AFP.

‘We’ve lodged an appeal against the sentence to the court there through our embassy in Riyadh and Darsem’s lawyer. We hope she could be freed or at least get a lower sentence,’ she said.

‘Darsem said she acted in self-defence as the employer had tried to rape her.’ Indonesia is also raising compensation or ‘diyat’ of two million riyals (S$673,000) for the employer’s family, she said.

‘Darsem could escape the sentence if she receives a pardon from the family.

The family forgave her in January on the condition that she pays the compensation,’ Mr Habir said. — AFP

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Hosni Mubarak Having Cancer Treatment in Saudi

Posted on 04 March 2011 by hashimilion

Contradictory to official statements, Egypt’s ousted President Hosni Mubarak is undergoing cancer treatment in Saudi Arabia, an Egyptian newspaper reported on Wednesday. The Al-Akhbar daily said Mubarak, 82, was at a military base in Tabouk where he received chemotherapy for pancreas and intestinal cancer every five days, and his family was there with him.

The newspaper said Egypt’s long-time leader left for Saudi Arabia two days after he was forced to step down by two weeks of protests.

The Supreme Council of Egypt’s Armed Forces and the Egyptian Embassy in Riyadh have denied the reports.

Some media have said the former president has returned to the Egyptian resort of Sharm El-Sheikh, whereas the Al-Youm al-Sabia popular newspaper said Mubarak had been banned from leaving the country and was in hospital in Egypt.

Mubarak has not been seen in public since stepping down as president Feb 11. His residence in Sharm el-Sheikh is heavily guarded.

Some media reports say he has been entertaining guests.

Egypt’s top prosecutor, Abdel Magid Mahmoud, officially banned Mubarak and his family from leaving the country on Monday and ordered seizure of his property and that of his family as part of corruption investigations.

Prior to his resignation, Mubarak had said he was determined to stay in the country and would die in his homeland.

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