In January 2011, protesters took to the streets, demonstrating against the government corruption. The protests were not organized at first and happened sporadically in different cities including the capital Riyadh and the main western port city of Jeddah. But, in February things changed. Activists, using the social site Facebook, called for nationwide mass rallies on March 11 dubbing it the “Day of Rage.” In Riyadh, only one person showed up as the Saudi government had the whole capital on lock down. His name was Khaled al-Johani. He was detained since then and became known on twitter and Facebook as the “only brave man in Saudi Arabia.”
Human rights group Amnesty International later learned that four others had also been arrested on the same day. In a frightening statement, the London-based group said “the fact that we have only just found out about four of these men gives us real concern that there are others swept up in arrests around the time of last year’s demonstrations who we are yet to find out about.”
At around the same time frame, the protests of another front became known. In the oil-rich Eastern Province, thousands of people–mainly from the minority Shia sect of Islam—began to come to the streets, calling for equal representation in key offices, reform, and the release of the prisoners. As their movement began to grow and infuriated by their government’s decision to send hundreds of military vehicles to Bahrain to help the regime crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, they called for the Saudi government to withdraw its troops from the tiny Persian Gulf kingdom. When the Saudi government started to feel the pinch, its security forces opened life fire on the protesters, killing several in different incidents. Since then, the protesters began to rally on an almost daily basis.
The government in Riyadh blames the unrest on what it calls foreign agents-an indirect reference to Iran— trying to stir up the unrest, the same excuse it used before invading and occupying Bahrain. The leader of the group Sheikh Ali Salman criticized Riyadh’s allegations during a Friday mass rally outside the capital Manama a few weeks ago. Salman said “Saudi Arabia’s occupation of Bahrain only makes the situation worse.” He went on to say “Iran has nothing to do with the revolution in Bahrain.”
Human Rights Watch reported a while back that more than 160 people calling for reform have been arrested in Saudi Arabia since January of 2011. The Saudi-based Human Rights First Society reported that the detainees have been subjected to torture—mental and physical.
Surprisingly in a theocratic strict monarchy, women are not sitting back from the reform movement. Last summer, female activists organized a campaign calling on all women drivers to take behind the wheel and violate a Saudi law which prohibits women from driving vehicles. The main event took place on June 17 and infuriated the government. At least 70 women have been arrested in that month alone for driving.
A few weeks ago in the southern tourist city of Abha, hundreds of women protesters staged a sit-in at their university, protesting against injustice and inequality. They were brutally attacked by the moral police. Over 50 of the women were injured and taken to a hospital. The incident sparked outrage across the country with male and female students taking to the streets in Abha, Riyadh and the holy city of Medina.
Saudi citizens for the first time are showing their anger at the government and asking for change.
Riyadh knows this very well. Therefore its actions of playing the counter-revolution party in the region also aim to illustrate the horror of a revolution in their country. The government-controlled media only cover the negative aspects of the pro-democracy movements sweeping the Arab world.
This comes while Saudi Arabia is playing a key role in containing the uprising and helping Arab regimes suppress the revolutions in their countries.
It seems evident that as the US and its western allies continue to turn a blind eye on the main violators of human rights in the Middle East and one of many in the world; the Riyadh government will only feel more confident to do as it wants and what it sees is right. Apparently no western country wants to upset one of its biggest weapons customer and oil providers in the region. It’s clear that the winds of change are right on the borders of Saudi Arabia. With the ongoing revolutions in Yemen and Bahrain and the uprising movement in Jordan, the Saudis abroad and inside the Arab kingdom are watching closely as the fate of their freedom might depend on the outcome of those revolutions happening around them.