Why has there been no Arab Spring in Saudi Arabia? Are Saudis frightened of the consequences of dissent? Are they politically too apathetic? Are they happy with their socio-economic system? Human rights activists suggest it may be a little of all of the above. What do you think?
In mid-December 2011, a series of sporadic protests erupted across Saudi Arabia, roughly nine months after the spontaneous outbreak of the “Day of Rage” rallies that ignited in the kingdom back in March 2011. The latest rallies, however, went largely unnoticed by international media. Far more headlines at the end of 2011 were devoted to the $30 billion arms deal between the United States and Saudi Arabia than to protests which, by some, were seen as seedlings of a Saudi version of the Arab Spring.
Reports on the crackdown against the December protests largely originated from one source – Human Rights Watch – which reported that Saudi security forces arrested more than 100 protesters on December 16 and December 23, 2011, in Riyadh. The arrests illustrated a pattern of sporadic bursts of Arab Spring determination followed by methodical silencing.
Early in 2011, citizens across Saudi Arabia, regardless of class or sect, glued to international satellite channels, witnessed previously unthinkable yet successful revolutions taking place in Tunisia and Egypt and another revving up in the nearby monarchy of Bahrain. To many of them, it looked as if the Arab Spring was moving on their kingdom.
Inspired, hundreds of Saudis took to the streets on March 11, 2011 – some pleading for more rights, some for free elections and others for a constitutional monarchy. A handful even demanded an end to the rule of the Saud dynasty.
Early pre-emptive action
Anticipating a revolution that was infecting sister nations, Saudi security forces flooded the streets of Riyadh, Qatif, Hofuf and al-Amawiyah. Within days, hundreds were arrested and the protests dissipated. By mid-April, the Saudi pro-democracy protest movement was but a whisper.
“On [March 11], I drove through the streets of Riyadh. And you are talking about a war zone,” said Mohammad Fahad Al Qahtani, director of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association based out of Jeddah. “Police cruisers. So many people were detained. Many people were thrown into makeshift prisons… buses that were converted into mobile prisons.”
But why has there been no Arab Spring in Saudi Arabia? Are Saudis frightened of the consequences of dissent? Are they politically too apathetic? Are they happy with their socio-economic system? Human rights activists like Qahtani suggest it may be a little of all of the above. And, looking to the future, they say any potential Arab Spring in Saudi Arabia is far off. Saudi Arabia may witness green shoots of aspiration but they won’t sprout a revolution any time soon.
Still, many Saudi human rights activists feel there are good reasons for dissent. Saudi citizens live under an absolute monarchy founded in 1932 by King Abdul Aziz Al Saud. Under the established form of government, the King carries out most executive, legislative and judicial functions. The extended royal family controls all major government posts. Political parties and free national elections are legally banned. By many standards, Saudi Arabia may be the Arab country farthest removed from democratic norms.
A statement issued by the Interior Ministry on March 5 explicitly prohibited public protest in all forms ahead of rallies which at the time were already being anticipated. The statement read: “The kingdom categorically prohibits all forms of demonstrations, marches, or protests, and calls for them, because that contradicts the principles of the Islamic Sharia, the values and traditions of Saudi society, and results in disturbing public order and harming public and private interests.”
Still, many took to the streets, some paying a heavy price. Take the case of Khaled Johani, a 40-year-old religion teacher. During the March protests, Johani was stopped by a BBC Arabic television crew and asked about freedoms he would like in Saudi Arabia. Johani was warned by nearby security police not to talk to the journalists but he persisted saying, “I’m here to say we need democracy, we need freedom. We need to speak freely. We will reach out, the government doesn’t own us. I was afraid to speak, but no more. We don’t have dignity, we don’t have justice!”
What Johani did – speak about freedom – turned out to be illegal. He was charged with protesting and communicating with foreign journalists. According to Amnesty International, Johani is believed to have been held in solitary confinement for two months. Nine months later, he remains in detention and has not been tried. In the blogosphere, he has since been dubbed “the bravest man in Saudi Arabia.”
Defending the accused in a country with few laws
“The problem here in Saudi Arabia is that we don’t have any criminal law,” says Waleed Sami Abu Al-Khair, a Jeddah-based lawyer who defends people who have been detained by Saudi authorities, like Johani. Al-Khair’s job as a lawyer is particularly difficult in that when he takes on a case for someone in detention, there are no legal statutes for him to refer to. Saudi Arabia has no modern criminal code; it relies upon its conservative interpretation of Islamic Sharia for guidance which is then handed down in judgments by security courts, civil courts and the Ministry of Interior.
“When a judge wants to make a ruling, they quote articles or refer to Sharia law that is Islamic law, specifically in the fields of terrorism, human rights and reform issues,” says Al-Khair. “Now, they want to address [dissent] in newly written laws.”
According to an Amnesty International report released in December 2011 and titled Saudi Arabia: Repression in the Name of Security, the Saudi government began drafting specific laws to suppress dissent after the Arab Spring-inspired March 2011 protests to target any form of dissent under the guise of fighting terrorism. Amnesty received a copy of the draft language; Saudi authorities have since decried the report as inaccurate.
If true, the proposed law would allow Saudi authorities to designate acts of peaceful protest as a “terrorist crime.” Those suspected of terrorism could be detained indefinitely without trial. Under Article 29 of the proposed law, “anyone who describes the King – or the Crown Prince – as an infidel, questions his integrity or defames his trustworthiness, or revokes his allegiance [to the King] or incites this” shall be “punished with a prison term of no less than 10 years.”
Al-Khair says these measures are, in essence, already in effect. “Those who are brave enough to protest end up in prison,” he said. “The Ministry of Interior puts people like this in prison to make an example, sending the message that if you want to try anything, you could be put in prison for a long time.”
The Amnesty report also cites Article 47 which states that “anyone who organizes a demonstration, participates in its organization, assists it, calls for it, or incites it” shall be “punished with a prison term of no less than three years” and “anyone who raises a slogan or image likely to infringe upon the country’s unity or its safety or to call for sedition and division and disunity among individuals in society, or incites such acts” shall be “punished with a prison term of no less than seven years.”
With the law’s enactment,, suspicion of terrorism links wouldn’t matter. Just dissenting could earn someone a minimum of three years in jail. It would be a deep chill on any future prospect of peaceful dissent in the kingdom.
Qatif: Disorganized Passion
If there has been any sign of sustained protesting in Saudi Arabia in 2011, it would be in the coastal city of Qatif, located less than 50 miles from Bahrain. Qatif has a large Shia population which has considered itself marginalized for decades. Many within that community also felt a natural kinship to Bahrainis, mostly Shias ruled by a Sunni minority, during their Arab Spring protests in March.
Tawfeeq Al-Saif, an author and political analyst based in Qatif, has communicated with protesters from March onward. “There is no doubt the Arab Spring had a deep impact on the Saudi citizens whether they be Sunni or Shia,” said Al-Saif. “However in Shia areas because of the long suffering of discrimination, they were more ready to protest.”
An estimated 4,000 people or more took to the streets in Qatif March 15 through April 1 after Saudi Arabia deployed the Peninsula Shield Force in Bahrain – in a gesture to help the sister kingdom maintain security in the face of its own protests.
In addition to opposing the force, protesters demanded the release of long-held prisoners. But a series of ongoing arrests beginning in March and continuing through today has kept protests in Qatif to a minimum.
Qahtani argues that although the will to march for more rights is strong in places like Qatif, spontaneous efforts are self-defeating because Saudis don’t have a foundation of legal grass-roots organizations or political parties in which they could organize.
“[The 2011 protests] were tantamount to going to a kindergartner and asking [him] to become a nuclear scientist,” said Qahtani. “You cannot do that. You must build capacity and empower people and educate people so they know how to demand rights. That’s why the day of rage on March 11 really did a disservice to the community.”
Qahtani says that as advanced as Saudis are in some respects, in basic political participation they are far behind.
“They don’t know how to protest. They don’t know how to engage in public demands. So they could not get their act together. Saudis have state-of-the-art computers and technology in cars and lavish homes but when it comes to politics there is a huge deficit…. is not like Egypt or Tunisia where people are organized. If you rush to take into streets without that education you will fail.”
Both Qahtani and Al-Khair say they are worried about the ascent of Nayef, the Crown Prince and Saudi Arabia’s Interior Minister since 1975. Unlike his half-brother King Abdullah, who has built a reputation for being a more moderate monarch, Nayef by most accounts is a staunch conservative and has close ties to the country’s security apparatus. Nayef’s son, Mohammed bin Nayef, is the country’s counter-terrorism chief. Nayef became Crown Prince in October 2011 and with Abdullah being 87 years of age, his ascent is imminent..
Al-Saif says that most Saudis would like major reforms implemented but under the framework of a constitutional monarchy. Wholesale regime change is not a popular sentiment. But the demands for reform are numerous, however unlikely under Nayef.
“The rule of law. A fully elected parliament. Legally protected civil freedoms. Removal of all forms of discrimination,” were among those listed by Al-Khair. “The equality of all citizens regardless of gender, sect or tribe. These are the major themes for reform.”
Qahtani believes that green shoots of dissent will persist regardless of who sits on the throne or what new laws are passed. But he also believes that the demands for change are great, being fueled by an entire host of factors ranging from growing Saudi youth unemployment all the way to a yearning for basic freedoms that other Arabs are now fighting for.
“I think the momentum is building because the regime is not listening to the people,” said Qahtani. “Little by little things are changing. People see what is happening in Egypt and elsewhere. They see the abusive relationships in the regime. So it’s just a matter of time. And guess what – the time is shortened because of social media like Twitter and Facebook. Now people from different sects in different regions and different backgrounds are talking to one another and formulating ideas together. I think in a very short time and they will take to the streets and [there] will be a genuine movement from within.”
NOTE: We have solicited reactions to this article from the Saudi Ministry of the Interior and the Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C. If any are received, they will be appended to this story.
Davin Hutchins is Consulting Editor of Middle East Voices. Hutchins brings 17 years of journalism experience to VOA after working with media organizations such as CNN, Tech TV, Huffington Post and PBS. He specializes in news, documentaries and new media with an emphasis on international social issues, media training and online delivery platforms. Hutchins lived five years in the Middle East and covers the dynamic changes that have been triggered by the Arab Spring.