The Kingdom Boils

Protesters in Saudi Arabia are becoming bolder. 

The coat of arms of the House of Saud.Nearly a month after a crude film caricature of the Prophet Muhammad made headlines, protests in response to it continue across the Muslim world. Yet in the ultraconservative Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, home to the holiest sites in Islam, people are protesting over more fundamental issues and setting their sights on the government itself.

Nowhere is unrest more evident than in the Eastern Province, home to the country’s key oil installations and most of its minority Shiite population. According to Saudi activist Ali Al Ahmed, the largest protest ever in the Eastern Province happened last weekend, when tens of thousands of angry mourners carried the bodies of three young Shiite men slain by Saudi security forces through the streets of Awwamiya as they chanted “Death to al-Saud.”

For decades, the downtrodden Shiites have agitated now and then against Saudi repression, but protests in the Eastern Province assumed new urgency in mid-July, when security forces shot and wounded, then arrested popular Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr for instigating “sedition.”

Daily protests in Qatif Province continued throughout July and August, ultimately prompting incursions by Saudi security forces that further escalated the tensions. Then, on September 2, security forces arrested Hussain al-Rabia, a young man in Awwamiya whom they contend was responsible for “killing and injuring a number of innocent people and security men.” When al-Rabia allegedly injured his foot in a shootout, Saudi authorities transported him to a military hospital for treatment, but his whereabouts are now unknown. Following the recent escalation, Shiite anger is simmering.

It is no accident that the growing Shiite agitation follows the death, in June, of Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, the interior minister who notoriously commanded the kingdom’s brutal internal-security apparatus for decades. Shiites in the Eastern Province hated Nayef for his repressive policies and even burned pictures of him in the streets. As it turns out, they also dislike Nayef’s successor, his younger brother Ahmed. Although Ahmed is quickly becoming the new public enemy, he lacks Nayef’s strongman reputation, which has emboldened activists to challenge the regime.

Much to the chagrin of the monarchy, unrest in the Eastern Province has proven contagious, spreading all the way to Sunni activists in Riyadh. Last month, authorities put prominent human-rights activists Mohammed al-Qahtani and Abdullah al-Hamid, cofounders of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, on trial for inciting public opinion, breaking allegiance to the king and turning international organizations against the country, among other charges.

The trial sparked heated debates online and drew heavy criticism from Saudi social-media users, some of whom even live tweeted the proceedings. In a country that conducts many political trials in secrecy, this marked a real shift and one of the first significant protests against human-rights abuses outside of the Eastern Province.

The courtroom scene quickly became a media circus, at least by Saudi standards. When asked to give statements in their defense, both men lashed out at the government for silencing human-rights defenders. Hamid even directly challenged the judge—who was also the prosecutor—for simultaneously claiming judicial independence and asserting that peaceful protests are only acceptable with the permission of the king.

Indifferent to their defenses, the judge barred spectators from future hearings and ordered Qahtani and Hamid to rewrite their statements. The two men refused and walked out of the courtroom. When the trial resumed this past Saturday, they tried persuading the judge to allow publicity of the trial. The judge rebuffed their requests, and again, the men walked out. They still await a verdict in the case.