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Saudi Arabia: the Middle East’s most under-reported conflict

Saudi Arabia: the Middle East’s most under-reported conflict
by Toby Matthiesen – Guardian – 23 January, 2012

As the British prime minister, David Cameron, visited Riyadh in mid-January, wooing Saudi business and strengthening bilateral relations, a young Shia man in the eastern province was shot dead.

Following the kingdom’s huge arms deal with the United States, Cameron apparently wanted to persuade the Saudis to buy Typhoon Eurofighters. His visit was a slap in the face for protesters, who are demanding human rights and more of a say in their country’s affairs.

In the week beginning 16 January thousands of people – activists say tens of thousands – took to the streets of Awwamiya in the eastern province to commemorate the death of Issam Muhammad Abu Abdallah, aged 22. He had been shot by Saudi security forces on the night of 12 January.

According to the interior ministry, the security forces were defending themselves after a police car had been attacked. Activists and local Shia news websites acknowledge that the police were attacked, but argue that the police used force indiscriminately. Issam’s funeral turned into a large rally at which emotions ran high and anti-government slogans were chanted.

These events are just the latest episodes in one of the Middle East’s most under-reported conflicts. Last year, Shia citizens in the eastern province took to the streets just days after the uprising started in neighbouring Bahrain on 14 February. Their protests were largely peaceful and they were hoping that Saudis in other areas would join them on a planned “day of rage” in March.

This day passed without major demonstrations, even in Shia areas, as the Shia protesters had allegedly been told their grievances would be addressed if they stayed at home. Those promises were never fulfilled, however, and the state chose to arrest the leaders of the demonstrations over the summer, further inflaming the situation.

Instead of using such repression, the regime should have addressed the grievances of the protesters, including the release of political prisoners. The Saudi Shia minority, mainly located in the eastern province, has long complained of discrimination in government employment and business, as well as restriction of religious practices. Initially, the protesters were not calling for the downfall of the monarchy but as repression intensified (demonstrations are illegal in Saudi Arabia) some did and also started attacking the security forces. …more