Tag Archive | "Reforms"

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Saudi Shi’ite Clerics Call For End To Protests

Posted on 22 April 2011 by hashimilion

Shiite Cleric Hasan Saffar

Leading Saudi Shi’ite clerics called on Thursday for protesters to end two months of demonstrations in the kingdom’s oil-producing Eastern Province, in an apparent bowing to government demands.

In at least two eastern towns, however, young Shi’ites ignored the call and took to the streets again to demand the release of prisoners and political reforms, activists said.

Inspired by Arab uprisings in Egypt or Tunisia, Saudi Shi’ites have been staging small protests in the Eastern Province, defying a demonstration ban and government pressure.

The Sunni Muslim monarchy of Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter and major U.S. ally, does not tolerate any form of public dissent and the kingdom has not seen the mass uprisings seen in other countries in the region.

After meeting government officials, leading Shi’ite clerics issued a statement asking activists to end demonstrations.

“We urge our beloved brothers … to calm the streets for the sake of brotherly cooperation that will help achieve our demands,” said the statement signed by 51 Shi’ite clerics and other personalities.

“We stress our demands to officials to address the issues and deliver on legitimate rights raised by a group of young people.”

A Shi’ite activist said the statement would probably not halt protests as young people were demanding reforms promised for years.

“It might reduce the number of protestors but I don’t think it will end it,” said the activist, who declined to be identified for fear of reprisals.

Saudi Shi’ites have long complained of difficulties getting government jobs and benefits enjoyed by the country’s majority Sunni population, a charge denied by Riyadh.

On Thursday, dozens of Shi’ites staged protests in the main Shi’ite city of Qatif and neighbouring village of Awwamiya, an activist said.

Saudi authorities have been increasingly nervous about protests, arresting participants and making independent travelling for journalists more difficult in the Eastern Province.

More than 160 Saudi activists have been arrested since February, Human Rights Watch said in a report this week.

On Sunday, Saudi authorities arrested a Shi’ite Muslim intellectual al-Saeed al-Majid, two days after protests in the Eastern Province.

 

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How long can Saudi Arabia hold off reforms?

Posted on 21 April 2011 by hashimilion

Surrounded by unrest in the Arab world, Saudi King Abdullah’s focus on lavish social handouts instead of political reform is a stop-gap solution that can only hold off change in the short term, reformers say.

Although unlikely to see uprisings on the same scale as in neighboring Bahrain and Yemen, the number one oil exporter and U.S. ally cannot stay insulated from the rest of the region or the world forever, they say.

“There are some people in the government whose interests are to maintain the status quo and they use tricks to do this such as forbidding demonstrations and saying that signing petitions is unlawful in Islamic law,” said Mohammed al-Qahtani, head of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association.

“But how long can this continue? Things are happening now and society is no longer passive. It might spiral out of control in the next few years either in terms of the power struggle among the elite or from the people themselves.”

The elderly king has announced $130 billion so far this year in handouts to boost wages, raise benefits for the unemployed and build houses, while creating 60,000 security positions and giving more money to the religious police.

The government let it be known after the handouts were announced that it is organizing elections this year to half the seats on municipal councils, after the vote was delayed in 2009.

Those elections were first held in 2005 as a response to U.S. pressure on reform, but activists do not see revisiting the councils now as a much of a concession on political rights — women can not vote or run as candidates.

So the ruling family appears so far determined to continue its domination of political life.

Succession to the throne is restricted by law to sons and grandsons of founder Abdel-Aziz bin Saud. Senior princes hold the main posts in the cabinet and most of them have been in their jobs for decades.

Saudi intellectuals were likely to lead the demands for political change but they can expect a strong reaction, said a prominent Saudi journalist who requested anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the subject.

“These people will come under attack by the government and conservatives will call them ‘corrupt liberals’ or ‘agents of the West’. That could be a spark in the political national movement of Saudi Arabia.”

FACEBOOK CAMPAIGN FIZZLES

A group of Saudi web activists launched an online campaign in January calling for political reform. The Facebook campaign called for a constitutional monarchy, an end to corruption and even distribution of wealth.

In the face of consistent warnings from the government and its leading clerics, as well as a massive security presence, most Saudis have not answered calls to protest for more rights.

Demonstrations so far have been confined to the oil-producing east, where minority Shi’ites have staged a series of protests in support of Shi’ites in Bahrain and political freedoms at home. But the government can easily pass off Shi’ite protests as not reflecting the views of most Saudis.

Earlier in February dozens of unemployed graduates and teachers staged protests in the capital Riyadh and Jeddah to demand jobs and better wages in the biggest Arab economy.

“They have lulled people in the short term but in the long term Saudi Arabia’s young population want their voices to be heard. They want to be active in society,” said a Saudi media analyst in Riyadh. “There needs to be structural reform rather than just the same old oil in new bottles.”

Under-30s account for some 60 percent of the population and most have grown up during the internet revolution. Many have a different mindset to veteran rulers and do not understand their arguments on why they do not deserve political rights.

The leading members of the Saudi royal family, most of them in their 70s and 80s, have heard it all before.

Calls for democratic rule came from Arab nationalists and leftists in the 1960s and Islamists in the 1990s. Those who have led calls in recent years for popular participation in government — through allowing elections to the advisory Shura Assembly or political parties — have been jailed.

The absolute monarchy argues that its system of government replicates the early Islamic state, fits with Gulf Arab traditions and has ensured stability.

London-based social anthropologist Madawi al-Rasheed said the state’s petrodollar wealth, extensive security apparatus and obedient clerics would prevent the emergence of a reform movement with teeth that so frightens the Al Saud dynasty.

“The regime today is much stronger and the family is like an octopus, controlling every part of the country,” she said.

“Twenty years ago it would have been easier for intellectuals to dream about reform. There will be no changes as long as there is money and a police state.”

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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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Three Saudi Shi’ites Released After Rare Protest

Posted on 21 February 2011 by hashimilion

Three Shi’ites held in prison for over a year were freed in Saudi Arabia’s oil-producing Eastern province, a Shi’ite preacher and a local journalist said on Sunday, days after a rare protest demanding their release.

Shi’ites staged a small protest on Thursday in the town of Awwamiya, near the Shi’ite centre of Qatif on the Gulf coast, to demand the release of the three, who had been held without charges.

“They were released today,” preacher Khoder Awwami told Reuters on the sidelines of a ceremony in a small mosque where the three were welcomed.

“I am so happy,” said Muneer al-Jasas, a blogger and one of the released men.

Officials could not be immediately reached for comment.

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.

The province is near Bahrain, scene of protests by majority Shi’ites against 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.

Awwamiya, a town visibly less affluent than the rest of the country, was the scene of protests for weeks 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, followed 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.

Officials say Shi’ites make up 10 percent of the Saudi population, although diplomats put it closer to 15 percent.

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Saudi Detainees Refuse to Sign Pledge

Posted on 19 February 2011 by hashimilion

The new political party founding members, arrested by Saudi authorities, refuse to compromise in withdrawing their demands for reforms.

The Umma Islamic Party, formed earlier this month by 10 university professors, political activists and business people, have asked the country’s rulers to start a dialogue on reform, including improving the status of women.

The initiative for forming the party was taken as pro-democracy movements have been spreading across Arab and African countries in recent weeks. The move came despite the kingdom’s ban on forming political parties.

It is not clear how many members were arrested on Wednesday, but party officials said that the detainees have declined to sign a pledge asked by the authorities’ on Friday to withdraw demands in return for their release.

One of the founders, Sheikh Mohammed bin Ghanim al-Qahtani, in a statement emailed to AP, said that he and the others have committed no crime to justify the arrest and that they were exercising their legitimate political rights.

The arrests will only “increase the political tension among the Saudi people who, like other Arabs, aspire to real political reform based on their right to freely express their opinions, hold political gatherings and elect their lawmakers,” he said.

On Thursday, Saudi Prince Talal bin Abdul-Aziz warned that his oil-rich country might be next in being swept over by a popular uprising if it does not act on reforms.

He said that it is not too late for the government to avoid a popular uprising if it adopts measures to step up the pace of reforms.

Saudi Arabia does not have a parliament. Instead, it has a consultative Shura Council, which is an entirely appointed body, merely aimed at providing the king with consultations on policies, laws, and other matters.

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