Tensions are surging in the eastern Saudi city of Al-Awamiyah. Located in a predominantly Shiite Muslim region, the city has demanded reforms from Saudi Arabia's Sunni royal family since March. Back then, the authorities clamped down on Shiite demonstrations. But the protesters have since come back – with a vengeance.
The spark that set off the protests was last Sunday’s arrest of two men, aged 60 and 70. Protesters say the men are innocent civilians who were arrested by the authorities solely to put pressure on their sons, suspected of being anti-government activists.
Shiites represent only 10 percent of the total Saudi population. They are mainly concentrated in the oil-rich Hasa region, in the east of the country. The ruling family views Shiites as heretics and marginalises them politically and socially. Saudi Arabia’s official religion is Wahhabism, a rigorous form of Sunni Islam.
"The protesters are now specifically targeting the royal family"
Ahmed Al-Rebh is the secretary-general of the Association for Development and Change, a group that defends Shiites' rights in the eastern province of Al-Sharqiyah.
Since the month of March, not a week has gone by without some form of protest in the region. Citizens regularly march to demand the release of [political] prisoners, equality between citizens, the end of discrimination against Shiites and the removal of Saudi troops from Bahrain [Saudi Arabia sent troops to the neighbouring kingdom of Bahrain to help quell a Shiite uprising there in January. Although they claimed to have removed their troops in July, critics believe some were left behind]. Although public protests are banned in Saudi Arabia, up until now authorities tolerated these marches.
Last Friday, the situation took a turn for the worse. The protest had barely started when police began beating the marchers with batons. This is probably because the protesters’ demands have become more radical: they are now demanding the creation of an elected parliament and a written constitution. Since then, police have been hunting down and arresting the people who participated in these protests.
Video published on YouTube on October 4.
In particular, they are looking for Mohammad Saeed Al-Abdelali and Mohammed Hassan Al-Zayed [the sons of the two men who were arrested on Sunday]. They are accused of openly defying a protest ban. The arrest of their frail and elderly fathers caused a wave of outrage, and locals mobilized to demand their release.
One Monday, a local activist, Fadel Al-Manasif, went to the jail they were held in to denounce their arbitrary arrest, but he too was put behind bars. After that, youths began throwing stones and bricks at the police headquarters. Police responded by firing live rounds – the bullet marks in surrounding houses bear witness to this. Twenty-four people were injured in the ensuing clashes, including two young women who had nothing to do with the protests.
The injured are afraid they will be arrested if they go to the hospital, so they are being treated at home.
Video published on YouTube on October 4.
Shiite Saudis are so angry that they are now attacking emblems of the regime, which was unheard of up until now. They are calling for the downfall of Mohammed ben Fahd, governor of the province and son of the late king Fahd. They also chant: ‘House of Saud [the royal family], you have no dignity!’ or ‘You are cowards!’
Young protesters rally on social media networks, in particular on a Facebook page focused on the revolution in Eastern Saudi Arabia. The situation doesn’t look like it will calm down anytime soon, because there is no dialogue with authorities."
Video published on YouTube on October 3.
The Saudi authorities’ response
Saudi authorities say that 11 police officers were injured in the clashes on Friday. The Interior Ministry issued the following statement on its website:
Monday evening at 9 pm, a group of delinquents disrupted public order in the city of Al-Awaniya in the region of Al-Qatif. They gathered on Al-Rif square, some of them on motorcycles, and began throwing Molotov cocktails at police. These delinquents are paid by foreign powers who seek to undermine public security and destabilise the regime. This is a blatant attack on national sovereignty."
Although the statement does not name a specific country, the rest of the text appears to target Iran, a Shiite Muslim country: "These delinquents must say whether they pledge allegiance to their country [Saudi Arabia] and God or to foreign countries and their Marja’iya [Shiite religious leaders]."
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Mahamadou Sawaneh.