On October 18, 15 men in Saudi Arabia were sentenced to jail time for peacefully protesting for the release of their relatives from Turfiya prison. It is the latest event in the largest sustained protest movement among Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries outside of Bahrain. Though the regime has dexterously deterred media coverage of the protests, activists across the Gulf kingdom continue to call on authorities to initiate reform.
The scant coverage of Saudi Arabia’s protest movement has centered on the uprising of the country’s minority Shi’a population. The majority of the protests have occurred among these communities in the Eastern Province, which has long been a hotbed of activism. The region has been marred by uneven development and systematic anti-Shi’a discrimination. Inspired by events in nearby Bahrain, activists here began taking their demands to the streets in February 2011.
The demonstrations began as a call for the release of political prisoners, but over the next 16 months, they escalated into demands for equal rights and political reform. The conflict had quieted down until July 2012, when authorities shot and arrested movement leader and cleric Nimr al-Nimr.
International media has largely depicted Saudi Arabian activism as a sectarian movement. While it is true that recent protests have taken place largely in the Shi’a populated Eastern Province, such a portrayal plays into the preferred narrative of the Saudi authorities who have drawn on sectarian rhetoric to deflect the criticism of the majority Sunni population and prevent linkages between Shi’a and Sunni activists. The strategy has successfully driven a wedge between the Sunni and Shi’a communities, but there are indications that dissatisfaction with the status quo is widespread.
Smaller-scale protests have occurred in areas with significant Sunni populations. An interview with the Eastern Province Revolution – a political youth group seeking to establish an electoral ruling system and representative government in Saudi Arabia –reveals that for many young activists, reform is not a Sunni or Shi’a idea, but the means to dignity and equality.
Recently a number of human rights defenders have been imprisoned and prosecuted for their activism.
On September 28, the Gulf Center for Human Rights reported on the Saudi authorities’ continued use of the judicial system to harass activists. The Center documented the ongoing trials of Mohammed Fahad al-Qahtani, an economics professor and vocal critic of the Saudi government, and Dr. Abdullah al-Hamid. Both are prominent members of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association. On October 30, Frontline Defenders reported on the year-long detention and inhumane treatment of human rights defender Fadel Mekki Al-Manasef. These and other activists have been subject to an ongoing state campaign against those who raise a critical voice against authorities.
The calls for democracy and human rights are clearly gaining traction in Saudi Arabia. Between the continued unrest in Bahrain and growing disquiet in Kuwait, the monarchy must institute reform if it wishes to avoid the instability that has plagued much of the region.