Country Report Saudi Arabia May 2011

The political scene: More Shia arrested as clampdown continues

In late April a further bout of protests were held in the Shia towns of Qateef and Awamieh in Eastern Province. Although the so-called Arab Spring has not thus far had a significant impact on the political and social scene in Saudi Arabia, protests in Shia-dominated Eastern Province have persisted since the regional uprisings took off in February 2011 (April 2011, The political scene). This latest round of protests, held as usual on a Friday, was accompanied by accusations that the Saudi security forces had fired directly on protesters, injuring five. (In previous Friday demonstrations in Eastern Province the security forces had only fired above the heads of protesters, to disburse them.) Despite the shootings, however, there were no reported fatalities, in contrast to the multiple deaths recorded in Bahrain, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere. Some 20 Shia are believed to have been arrested, though, increasing the total number of Saudi Shia detained during the protests to an estimated 160-165. Among those detained are bloggers, as well as those arrested on the street for protesting (which is illegal in Saudi Arabia).

The apparent self-restraint being exercised by Ministry of Interior forces appears to be rooted in a general worry that official overreaction would intensify Shia feeling at a time when the involvement of the kingdom's troops in suppressing largely Shia protests in Bahrain has already fed anger among Saudi Shia. The Shia minority, estimated at around 8% of the Saudi national population, is concentrated in Eastern Province, and the protests have largely focused on securing the release of Shia political prisoners and, since Saudi forces entered Bahrain, on expressing their opposition to the Saudi presence there. Protests were also indirectly encouraged by the release in March of a number of political prisoners, granted by the Eastern Province governor, Mohammed bin Fahd. Many of those arrested appear to be calling for reform as opposed to the downfall of the ruling Al Saud family. It is also important to note that, in contrast to its public statements after its intervention in Bahrain, the Saudi government has not sought to connect the protesters in Eastern Province with Iran. However, it probably continues to see Shia opposition inside the kingdom as akin to that in Bahrain and elsewhere in the Gulf-pro-Iranian, in effect, if not necessarily in intent.

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