Saudi Arabia: Revolutionaries without a revolution

The contemporary Saudi-led counterrevolution, fierce as it has been throughout the Arab world, is perhaps most relentless inside the Kingdom’s own borders. US-trained and armed security forces have been dispatched more thoroughly throughout the country to thwart any potential signs of public gatherings or protests. In the last year alone, at least eight Saudi nationals have been killed for partaking in public protests. This is in addition to the unrelenting police brutality against unarmed civilians that has injured numerous men and women. Further, hundreds have been illegally detained across the country for supporting calls for reform and protest. Such violence and intimidation is not only reserved for those who have attempted to take to the streets. Dozens have also been forbidden from travel, placed under house arrest, or banned from writing in the Saudi press simply for criticizing the status quo. Others have been forced to sign formal pledges not to engage in acts that “challenge state laws and norms.” Several blogs have been shut down, and two twitterers have been arrested and today face the possibility of a death sentence. In short, scores of citizens have been intimidated into silence.

The above-listed acts only begin to scratch the surface of the lived consequences of the counterrevolutionary campaign inside Saudi Arabia. Compounding this stark reality is the information blackout that the Saudi media empire has succeeded in imposing on local developments. Its outlets have been able to hijack and recreate events, from Sana’a and Manama to Damascus and Muscat. Equally alarming, however, the Saudi-controlled media have largely succeeded in silencing the flow of information on local events both inside and outside the country. Most internet sites that carry information critical of the Saudi ruling family, as well as those that simply relay calls that challenge the status quo are blocked. This is especially the case for Arabic-language sites and those originating from within the country. Media laws have been made more stringent, and relaying information or images of Saudi protests carries a prison sentence of up to ten years, with thousands of dollars in fines. Little wonder then that there exists a significant information disconnect among people living in Saudi Arabia, and not only with those who are abroad. At any given time, residents of most Saudi cities are largely in the dark as to what is happening only a few kilometers away, let alone in other Saudi cities.

Increasingly stricter laws, coupled with the media blackout, nonetheless stand in contrast to small yet consistent protests across the Kingdom. Every week, Saudi men and women gather at the country’s various ministries to make the simplest of demands, including increasing wages, being permanently reinstated in jobs as was promised, getting paid on time, and obtaining long overdue land or cash grants. Despite their regularity, these gatherings — when news of their occurrence actually reaches the media — are repackaged as officials opening their doors to average citizens to solve their problems. At the Ministry of Interior in Riyadh, protests demanding the release of political prisoners — a weekly occurrence only a few years ago — have all but stopped in the last ten months given the heightened attention they have garnered. Until a few weeks ago, when the issue of political prisoners was resurrected again, any mention of prisoner rights was summarily dismissed as a strictly Shia demand, which — in the sectarian Saudi media parlance — means it is not really a national issue that merits attention.

Acts of protest have not been limited to the government ministries. Employees from different departments of such larger-than-life companies as Saudi Airlines and the Saudi Telecom Company (STC) have gone on strike for days, at times weeks, due to widespread corruption, deteriorating employment conditions, and on-the-job discriminatory practices. Several times, these employees were able to momentarily shut down one of Riyadh’s busiest intersections on Olaya Street facing the Kingdom Tower, before riot police quickly dispersed them. In early March 2012, following major student protests at Riyadh’s King Saud University, over five thousand women gathered at the King Khalid University in Abha. Contrary to media and official claims, which were overwhelmingly sectarian and dismissive in tone, the female students had been voicing their anger at corrupt administrative measures, discriminatory gender practices, and increasingly restrictive policies. Campus security allowed state police to enter the university in order to put down the protest. As a result, one student was killed, another had a miscarriage, and over forty others were seriously injured. The story was quickly repackaged in the local media as one of female students protesting, of all things, garbage at their university. The protesters allegedly attacked university employees and in the process hurt themselves and each other. As with other incidents in Saudi Arabia that require serious investigation, a commission was appointed to look into the matter while the “culprits” were forced to sign pledges and apologize for their actions.

Behind closed doors, Saudis of all walks of life talk freely about the corrupt regime and the irony of its support for the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad’s regime after having brutally suppressed protesters in equally authoritarian Bahrain. Not surprisingly, however, the most vocal criticism and acts of opposition to Al Saud have occurred in Qatif and its surroundings in the Eastern Province. Such protest is rarely mentioned in Saudi Arabia, let alone recognized, even by those who elsewhere in the country could be said to have common cause with them. In Qatif, the landscape of revolt has been drastically altered since I last visited in June. On the intersection of Riyadh Street and King Abdulaziz Road in Qatif, Revolution Roundabout — the starting point of almost-weekly Friday protests — has been demolished. Traces of it, however, are visible on the ground. Its importance as a symbol of solidarity and defiance remains etched in people’s memories.

In Ashuwaykah neighborhood, east of what used to be Revolution Roundabout, King Abdulaziz Road has been renamed “Revolution Street” [shari’ al-thawra] and is a site of weekly protests. It is filled with photographs of the seven young men who were killed by Saudi security forces, as well as some of those who have been shot and survived. There, every nook and cranny is covered with anti-regime graffiti. Most single out Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz, his nephew Eastern Province Governor Mohammad bin Fahd bin Abdulaziz, and Bahrain’s Hamad al-Khalifa. Both Nayef and Mohammad bin Fahd are perhaps the most hated princes in the area, if not the country. Mohammad bin Fahd is notorious for his endemic corruption, stealing private property from local citizens, and reaping billions by illegally taking over public lands and reselling them to investors at exorbitant prices. He is also known to have engaged in illegitimate real estate schemes in Mecca, among other places, and for privileging a handful of Sunni families in the Eastern Province at the expense of all others. Nayef, on the other hand, is even more feared as the architect of the bloody suppression of the Shia revolt of the 1980s. While the whole Saudi regime, including King Abdullah, is implicated in this historical suppression as well as the current counterrevolution, Nayef is often singled out as its mastermind. As Minister of Interior, he is also responsible for the illegal detention of political prisoners, some of who have been held for years without charge or a fair trial. He too is implicated in shady real estate deals, more recently with one involving the latest part of the Dammam Corniche in the Eastern Province.

In recent months, the protests in the Eastern Province have been concentrated in Al-Awamiyah, old Qatif, Seihat, and Tarut. Protesters regularly provide false information online on the timing and location of gatherings and often rotate from one place to another in order to mislead the police. Heavy security presence in Qatif on Fridays is contrasted with its near absence on other days of the week, with the exception of particular circumstances like those that took place in Al-Awamiyah on 22 March 2012. It was business as usual on that quiet Thursday, and there were no petrol cars in sight. However, civilian informants [mukhbirin] are known to do the police’s dirty work. Mohammed Saleh al-Zanadi, a young rights activist who is also one of the twenty-three wanted protest organizers, was strolling casually on the town’s main street. He looked happy and full of life. Hours later, it was announced that he had been shot by security forces while getting a haircut in a barbershop down the street. Mohammed had managed to escape with three gunshots, only to be caught several hours later by internal security forces. Security was heavy all weekend long, with gunshots heard every now and then to scare off potential protesters. While Qatifis were not able to take to the streets in large numbers that week, they have called for a major protest on Friday 6 April 2012.

The traditional political and religious leadership in Qatif is conflicted over how to move forward after innocent blood has been shed in the region. They all oppose the regime’s use of violence and oppressive intimidation tactics. Some, however, do not see eye to eye on the benefits of continuous public demonstrations, especially ones that call for the downfall and death of Al Saud. Sheikh Hassan al-Saffar, one of the most respected religious and political leaders in the region, did not speak out against police violence until mid-February 2012, after security forces shot several young Qatifi men. He condemned the regime for its resort to force and for failing to launch a serious investigation into the killings. A prominent opposition figure, Sheikh al-Saffar led the Shia revolt of the 1980s from Qatif, and later from exile in Damascus. He and the remaining Shia opposition in exile returned home in the 1990s after then King Fahd promised to ease restrictions on the Shia of Saudi Arabia. Since, he has worked within the system to improve the lot of Qatifis and secure more rights for the Shia community. For decades, he has been the regime’s most reliable ally in the region. Yet, he has become a sustained target of a derisive and sectarian local media attacks since he spoke out publicly against regime violence. For most Qatifis, even those who have criticized the Sheikh for working with the regime, he was the Shia’s last hope for a peaceful resolution.

Not all Qatifis who are critical of the regime support the protesters or what they see as excessively confrontational opposition tactics. Many of the area’s residents, like other Arab citizens, prefer to see a more peaceful resolution to the current crisis. With the specter of the 1980s regime violence still fresh in their minds, they fear for their loved ones and their futures. That Nayef is due to take up the throne after King Abdullah if he himself actually survives the brain hemorrhage he recently suffered only adds to such anxieties. Yet, the regime’s firm stance against all calls for change does not bode well for those who aim to work within the system, no matter how corrupt it is. Despite lessons from the Arab uprisings, the ruling family insists on presenting itself as invincible and refuses to hold officials accountable for egregious human rights violations committed in the last year. Even citizens outside Qatif who have in the last year believed King Abdullah’s seductive reform package are coming to realize the futility of such empty promises. Yet the regime knows that it has every reason to feel invincible. Life, after all, takes on an eerie normalcy only fifteen minutes outside revolutionary Qatif. In Dammam and Al-Khobar, the Eastern Province’s other main cities, Qatif and its politics seem a lifetime away. As do other acts of protest that, given Saudi repression, constitute milestones but nonetheless serve little by way of compelling the Saudi regime to attend to any of Saudi citizens’ demands. If anything, the regime banks on such regional divisions, in addition to religious, sectarian, ideological, social, class, and political differences, to prevent any form of national solidarity from emerging. As young Saudis voicing their beliefs were killed and shot this month in Abha and Qatif, respectively, the ruling family was supporting a different kind of spring in the capital: the Riyadh Spring Festival, the only kind that will blossom in the Kingdom in the foreseeable future.

Rosie Bsheer is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at Columbia University. Her research centers on the study of historiography, archive theories, and the spatial politics of oil cities. 

This article was originally published on Jadaliyya.

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