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.
But the outrage over this trial pales in comparison to the anger of Saudi prisoners’ families, who have been demonstrating against arbitrary detentions and torture in the kingdom’s prisons since early June, when packs of young Sunni men marched through the Sahara and Hayat shopping malls in Riyadh—another rare scene in the country’s capital.
Later that month, riots broke out inside the massive al-Ha’ir Prison near Riyadh, where the Saudi government houses many inmates accused of security offenses, which can range from jihadi activity to legitimate human-rights activism. Throughout Ramadan, from late July into August, prisoners’ families began congregating outside of the prison to demonstrate for their release. Similar protests also spread to Buraida and Dammam.
Of course, indefinite detention and torture in Saudi prisons is nothing new. But the relentless protests against them are truly extraordinary in a country that bans protests outright. Despite the restrictions, activists seem to grow bolder by the day.
On September 10, dozens of prisoners’ relatives descended upon the public prosecutor’s office in Riyadh, where they staged a two-day sit-in until the prosecutor agreed to meet with them on the spot. Only days later, for the first time ever, banners sprang up throughout the capital that read “Al-Ha’ir Political Prisoners in Danger,” “Stop Torture . . . Inside Prisons” and “Families of Prisoners [demand] . . . Release Our Relatives.”
On September 24, more than one hundred people congregated in the desert outside of Tarfiya prison in Qassim Province to demand justice for relatives they claim are unjustly imprisoned. In response, police blockaded them without food or water and refused to let them leave. The same day, dozens more protesters gathered in front of the Human Rights Commission in Riyadh with similar complaints.
As the unrest continues, Saudi officials deny that any wrongdoing occurs inside the country’s prisons and scoff at reports that the kingdom holds thousands of prisoners of conscience. And even amidst the calls to release the prisoners, the Shura Council, an all-appointed legislative body, recently supported amending a law that would lower the legal standards for carrying out executions and allow Saudi courts to approve indefinite periods of detention for prisoners.
That’s business as usual for the House of Saud. But in a kingdom that frequently denies citizens basic rights, ordinary Saudis are showing they need little Western provocation to spark their rage.
Steven Miller is research associate at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and coauthor of Facebook Fatwa: Saudi Clerics, Wahhabi Islam and Social Media. He tweets at @ShaykhSM