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Has the Arab Spring Bloomed in Saudi Arabia?

“[Saudi] authorities depend on bullets and killing and imprisonment. We must depend on the roar of the word, on the words of justice.”

– Fugitive cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr of Awamiyya, speaking on Saudi security services use of live fire against pro-democracy protests in the country’s Eastern Province, 4 October 2011

Saudi Arabia was unable to insulate itself from the Arab Spring. The regime’s illusion in believing its citizens would never demand reform as had their Egyptian, Bahraini and Yemeni counterparts was thoroughly dispelled last week.

The seeds of resentment and revolt in the Arabian Peninsula were planted many decades—if not centuries—earlier, and where they blossomed came as no surprise.

It was not from the quarters of Riyadh or Jeddah but rather the streets where the most disenfranchised and marginalized of Saudi society trod. It is they who were the first to rise and challenge the government-backed religious establishment who sanctioned and institutionalized the practices of bigotry and sectarianism. The victims of this pervasive, systemic discrimination are none other than the country’s Shia Muslims population—Arab Saudi citizens who have been made to feel anything but those three words.

The Saudi Shia, who comprise a mere 10-15% of the total population, reside largely in the country’s oil-rich Eastern Province (EP) yet they have reaped little of the vast wealth beneath their feet,  preferentially doled out to the rest of the nation as any visitor to Qatif will testify. The Shia have brazenly defied official bans on public protests—whether in support of Gaza, Bahrain, or their own rights and freedoms. According to Human Rights Watch, more than 160 anti-regime activists have been arrested since February as a result.

So what made the demonstrations of Oct. 3-4 any different?

For the first time, Saudi security forces did not shoot over protestors’ heads, but directly at them.

And it is this fact that heralds the arrival of the Arab Spring to the Kingdom. The first sign of an entrenched regime’s fear the status quo may change is the use of live ammunition against its people as we witnessed in Tunisia, then Egypt, now Bahrain, Yemen and Syria.

Tensions came to a head when police arrested two elderly men as a means to coerce the surrender of their fugitive sons who were accused of taking part in anti-government rallies in March. Riots subsequently erupted in which dozens of people were injured in the cities of Awamiyya and Qatif.

As expected, the Saudis blamed the unrest on a “foreign country” (re: Iran) and questioned the loyalty of those who joined. The demeaning practice of relegating legitimate grievances to the ill-intentions of a third country can only serve to further alienate the population by casting them as the “other.” Indeed in Wahabi ideology, the Shia are considered “heretics” at best or “infidels” at worst depending on the prevailing liberalism of the day.

Patrick Cockburn has done exemplary reporting on the Arab Awakening in both Bahrain and Saudi Arabia; two countries that have otherwise received little media coverage compared with the Mideast’s other uprisings.

Cockburn candidly observed:

“There are an estimated two million Shia in Saudi Arabia, or about 10 per cent of the 23 million population, who have always been victims of discrimination so wide-ranging that it resembles apartheid against blacks in South Africa. Shia are denied access to top jobs in all walks of life and even prevented from becoming head teachers at schools teaching Shia children.”

The heavy-handed social, political and religious prejudice levied against them in all spheres of life will eventually reach a tipping point.

As Queen and David Bowie famously sang in “Under Pressure” (1981):

Pressure, pushing down on me
Pressing down on you, no man ask for
Under pressure, that burns a building down
Splits a family in two
Puts people on streets

Once people are put to streets due to insufferable pressure, they have a pesky way of staying there until justice is found.

Late reports indicate additional Saudi troops have been dispatched to the EP.

Let the flowers bloom.

Hadi Abdul Nour writes about the Middle East.

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