Saudi Arabia

Muslim protests pose major challenge for Saudi Arabia

The momentum for change is building every day in what is called Saudi Arabia – an artificial country carved out in the Arabian Peninsula by the British for their loyal servant, Abdul-Aziz Aal-Saud, the burden of whose name the land carries today and whose sons continue to rule this country one by one as obedient servants of the US.

The Wahhabis – a heretical sect created by the British – constitute no more than 12 percent of the entire population of Saudi Arabia and the have the criminal record of desecrating holy spots associated with Islam and Prophet Mohammad (SAWA), and yet they are allowed by the so-called ‘democratic’ West to terrorize the region through creating terror networks like al-Qa’eda, because they have put the vast oil resources completely at the disposal of the US and Britain. Ironically, the oil being sold at dirt cheap prices, does not belong to the Saudi regime, it is the property of the sons of the soil, especially the oppressed Shi’ite Muslims of the eastern region on the Persian Gulf, whose lands Abdel-Aziz had seized in the late 1920s, and who are the overwhelming majority in their occupied and usurped oil-rich ancestral land. The Shi’ite Muslims, inspired by the Islamic Awakening sweeping the region, have begun to more assertive these days, and are demanding justice and freedom, despite the intense persecution unleashed by the brutal regime. Please stay with us for some coverage of the situation through the eyes of investigative American journalist, Kevin Sullivan, of course with the necessary editing.

This much is beyond dispute: peaceful activist Khalid al-Labad is dead. The 26-year old Muslim activist, along with two teenage relatives, was fatally shot by police on September 26 as they sat in plastic chairs on the narrow sidewalk in front of their house in this broken-down little town of Awamiyah in the eastern region – and achieved martyrdom. To police, Labad was a violent “menace” wanted for the alleged shooting two police officers, killing another man and attacking a police station. To human rights advocates, he was a peaceful protester silenced by the regime for demanding equal rights for the country’s oppressed Shiite Muslim minority. The killing of Labad and the two teens marks an escalation in Saudi Arabia’s worst civil unrest in years. The uprising in the Wahhabi kingdom’s oil heartland has been an often-overlooked front in the wave of revolts remaking West Asia and North Africa. But it has become increasingly violent, and the implications for the region are vast at a time when Saudi Arabia is trying to meddle in the affairs of Syria (in addition to the virtual occupation of Bahrain), solely to try to undermine the Islamic Republic of Iran. Saudi officials assert that the protesters are nothing more than Iranian puppets bent on destabilizing the Saudi economy — a charge the demonstrators vehemently reject. Shi’ite Muslims – as the followers of the Ahl al-Bayt or Household of Prophet Mohammad (SAWA) are called – have long been treated as second-class citizens by the ruling Wahhabi minority in Saudi Arabia. Although, over 80 percent of the population of the eastern region, Shi’ite Muslims, including the Ismailis of Najran in the west and the Zaydis of the south on the borders of Yemen, account for almost 30 percent of the country’s 28 million people.

The death toll in Awamiya – 14 civilians and two police officers since the beginning of last year — is small compared with those in recent uprisings in other Arab countries, And, unlike elsewhere, protesters, for the moment, are not demanding the overthrow of the regime. They want long-denied basic rights: equal access to jobs, religious freedom, the release of political prisoners. But in a nation where even peaceful protests have long been banned, the clashes between police and demonstrators have become a big concern for King Abdullah and his ruling family. “The government realizes it has a major problem here,” said Ja’far ash-Shayeb, chairman of the municipal council in Qatif, a Shiite-majority town close to Awamiya, near the oil wells and office complexes that constitute the hub of an oil industry that brought in $300 billion last year. But the government’s response has largely been to dismiss the protests as illegitimate. Mansour al-Turki, spokesman for the powerful Interior Ministry, said in an interview that the Saudi protesters “have connections to Hezbollah,” – Lebanon’s legendry anti-terrorist movement. Such assertions infuriate supporters of the protesters. “Show me one person here who has any connection to Iran. Where is the evidence? There is none,” said Waleed Sulais of the Adala Center for Human Rights, a group formed last year in Qatif to document abuses against Shi’ite Muslims. The regime has worked hard to play down the escalation in tensions in these waterfront towns, just across a 16-mile causeway from Bahrain, where Saudi troops are brutally suppressing the popular uprising by the island-state’s long oppressed Shi’ite Muslim majority.

International and domestic human rights groups said the Saudi regime has prevented them from entering Awamiya and Qatif, and government censors have occasionally blocked the Web sites of rights groups. Rights workers in Awamiya said a recent visit by a reporter of the US daily, Washington Post, was the first by a foreign journalist permitted in many months. In three days of interviews in private homes, street corners and government offices, protesters and security officials passionately accused each other of being liars and cold-blooded murderers.

“They lie. They lie a lot,” Yousef Ahmed al-Qahtani, Turki’s deputy, alleged regarding the grievances of the protesters. He was, however, proven wrong by the account provided by 50-year old, Mohammad al-Nemr, who said: “Let me say this clearly and plainly: They’re lying. They’re lying. They’re lying.” Nemer, a building contractor who is the brother of the recently shot and arrested revolutionary religious leader, Shaikh Baqer Nemer, said the regime is indulging in crimes against humanity.

Awamiya is a shabby town filled with rutted roads where people scrape together a living fishing or working in small shops. Everyone entering the town must pass through police checkpoints, and police have blocked off main streets with armored vehicles. The town’s neglect stands in sharp contrast to the gleaming new malls of Damman, the province’s largest city, just 15 miles down the coast. Last year, King Abdullah announced a $130 billion national spending package widely seen as an insurance policy against the arrival of a Saudi Spring. The plan included wage increases for government workers, new rules to make mortgages easier to obtain, a huge expansion of unemployment benefits and plans for 500,000 new homes. Although the plans were not aimed at Shi’ite Muslims specifically, people in this region benefited, and a housing project is planned for Qatif. Shayeb, the Shi’ite official, said the spending “helped divert people’s attention from the uprising” but did not erase the underlying anger of the people. Shi’ite Muslims have demanded an end to discrimination in employment — few top-level government jobs go to Shi’ite Muslims. They want more freedom to build mosques and religious community centers, which are banned in many areas. They want more development in towns that appear run-down and neglected. And they want the release of political prisoners, many of whom have been held without charge or trial for months or years.

While the regime seems in no mood to answer some of these demands, the people have taken to the streets with new resolve. Protests occur almost weekly, mainly on weekends. The marches can be a few dozen protesters carrying photos of the dead and shouting anti-government slogans, or hundreds of people taking over main boulevards, as they did after the recent funerals for Labad and the two teens. The protesters, including fully veiled women, march down humid seaside streets in temperatures well over 100 degrees, carrying signs and chanting. They have also burned tires, tossed molotov cocktails and, both sides agree, sometimes shot at police. At first, the Saudi regime responded cautiously. But more recently, both police and protesters appear to be turning more violent. Officials from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International hold the Saudi regime responsible of systematic human rights abuses in its treatment of the protesters. In a report issued in May, Amnesty said the regime had committed “widespread human rights violations against individuals exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly.” Amnesty concluded that Saudi security forces had arbitrarily detained protesters, held many without charge or trial, beaten and tortured some, and engaged in a “state policy” to have protesters fired from their jobs. Activist Sulais said the police are simply obeying government orders to crush demands that the Wahhabi leaders would rather not hear. He said his group had documented the shooting of 71 protesters, including 14 killed. Since last year, he said, police have arrested 723 people, and 162 of them are still jailed, including 61 children as young as 14.

The July 8 shooting and arrest of Muslim cleric Sheikh Baqer an-Nemer, whose sermons had inspired the protesters, reflects the two views of reality in Awamiya. Police allege that the 53-year old religious leader was arrested for speeches that incited violence and advocated the Eastern Province’s secession from Saudi Arabia. They claimed they shot him after a bodyguard fired at them. His brother, Mohammed Nemer said the Sheikh never traveled with a bodyguard and didn’t own a gun. He said he never incited violence or urged secession and is being held in solitary confinement in a prison in Riyadh, the Saudi capital. “He supported demonstrations, and he also demonstrated himself,” Nemer said. “Does that mean you should go and shoot him? Who is violent here?” Hours after the Sheikh’s arrest, hundreds of people gathered in the streets of Awamiya to protest, with men at the front and women in the rear, said 24-year old Batoul Alawi al-Awami, one of the protesters. Awami said that armored vehicles then appeared and that police started shooting into the crowd, killing her husband, Seyyed Akbar Ali Shakhoury. “All he did was demand our rights,” his widow said, adding: “They are afraid of the truth.”

The killing of Labad and the two teens hangs over Awamiya. In Labad’s house, a warren of small rooms where several families live, more than 20 family members sat on the floor in a room beneath photos of Labad and religious leaders one recent night. They said Labad and his relatives were unarmed when police opened fire on them, and they were furious at assertions that the dead were criminals. “We only come out to demand legitimate rights, and they call us terrorists,” said Labad’s sister, 30-year old Ebtisam al-Labad, adding: “They are afraid of the truth. They don’t want people to speak. They want people to be like sheep.”

All said and done, the momentum for change is gradually building in Saudi Arabia, even among the Sunnis of various other denominations who are suppressed by the seditious Wahhabis.

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