Conflict & Justice

Saudi government warns against protests

By Laura Lynch

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In Saudi Arabia, religious and government authorities have joined forces to try to head off growing calls for protests. The calls are loudest in the eastern part of the country — a region dominated by the Shia minority.

A low-slung white brick building on a side street in the Saudi city of Safwa doesn't have a showy sign or a fancy paint job or any other hint of just what's going on inside. Ring the buzzer, wait for someone to see your face on the security camera, and only then might you be let inside.

This is a beauty salon. The clients are almost all Shia Muslim women, and they can all tell tales of what they describe as discrimination. Amjad al-Mullah, who is 19, graduated last year from a school where every teacher was a Sunni Muslim. As her toenails were painted pink, al-Mullah talked of her pride in being a Shiite. But in school, she said, she was only taught Sunni religious theories and rituals.

It's the same in every girls' school in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia – no Shiite teachers, no Shiite lessons. Nadeema Assadh, who also came to the salon, said her children have been taunted by Sunnis deriding their Shia faith.

Human rights reports have documented the problems over the years: Shia students complain of hostility from Sunni teachers and others; when Shia graduate, it's almost impossible to get jobs in the police force or the military, and there are still obstacles to the full and open observance of their faith.

So for many, it's no surprise to see protests — albeit small ones — spring up in the Shia east. But General Mansour al-Turki, who speaks for the Saudi Interior Ministry in Riyadh, said security forces will step in to prevent any demonstrations. With concerns that demonstrations in the region last week could spread across the country, al-Turki said it's time send a message — protests are illegal.

"We had to remind people because we had people demonstrating in the Eastern Province and we heard a lot about people planning to demonstrate for different reasons," al-Turki said. "Therefore, we thought it was important for those forgetting the rules."

Some of those who "forgot" last week have been arrested for calling for the release of long held prisoners. Al-Turki called those prisoners terrorists and claimed the demonstrators are being provoked by foreigners.

"They have been influenced by what is happening in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Iraq. They were influenced in one way or another by outsiders," he said.

Protestors had the idea that this is the only way they can get their rights, al-Turki said, "But they have their rights."

But Shia activists, like writer Yousif Makki, said that's not true. Makki wants to see Shiites have more of a say in the running of the country, and right now, Makki added, is the best time to go to the streets to press for that.

"We have to rally for our rights," Makki said. "We are not going to destroy anything. We are not going to do any harm for our country. All that we need is this for this demand to be considered."

At the salon, Nadeema Assadh said that when Sunnis ask her why Shia are protesting, she tells them that it's their duty to demonstrate for their rights. "My friend told me, 'you shouldn't speak like that, because there are a lot of spies here.' I told her, 'Where?'" Assadh said, laughing it off.

Assadh's laughter suggests there is room for dissent in today's Saudi Arabia. There is word of new talks between Shia representatives and the governor of the eastern province.

In addition, a Shiite cleric arrested last week has been released. It may be an effort to defuse tensions ahead of Friday — when there are calls for what is being labeled a Saudi "day of rage." But the other warnings of crackdowns on demonstrations show there's a limit to what Saudi Arabia is willing to tolerate.