Entrenched Arab governments in Jordan, Algeria and even Syria and Yemen reacted to the Arab Spring with a mixture of political concessions and repression. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, offered none of the former while intensifying its crackdown on dissent. The kingdom's political ice-age continues despite changes elsewhere.
Saudi protesters haven't demanded regime change; in February, three petitions signed by thousands called for modest reforms, such as a constitution, an elected parliament and an end to corruption. And a fourth group announced the formation of the kingdom's first political party. In February, there were calls on the Internet for street protests on March 11, which proved a turning point. Authorities reacted by arresting most of the political party's nine founders on February 16, and on March 4 detained Muhammad al-Wad'ani, who had called for the protests in an Internet video. On March 11, the authorities arrested Khalid al-Juhani, the sole Saudi to attempt to broach the heavy security presence in Riyadh that day to protest.
The real activity was not in Riyadh, but among the Shia in the eastern Province, who represent between 10 and 15 percent of the population. Since late February, small protests had taken place there to demand the release of longtime political prisoners, in particular nine Shia Saudis held without charge or trial since between 1996 and 1998. Saudi Shia have a history of demonstrating for political change and against state discrimination, and have suffered for it, with little to show for their troubles. But for most of the country's non-Shia population, the idea of uniting in protest around a shared set of grievances is a new one. In recent decades, only small groups of intellectuals have dared to voice dissent publicly and they often paid a heavy price.
In early March, the Council of Senior Religious Clerics, the highest law-interpreting body, and the Interior Ministry reiterated the government's ban on public protests. Through targeted arrests of leading dissidents and protest organizers, the authorities showed their intent to nip an incipient protest movement in the bud.
The Shia protesters, though few in number, were not so easily stifled, and their largely leaderless protests continued. The authorities arrested some Shia intellectuals, such as the writer Hussain al-Alaq, and a few dozen protesters on March 4 and 5, but released them shortly thereafter and did show restraint. At another Shia protest on March 11 in the eastern city of Qatif, however, witnesses described to Human Rights Watch how an undercover intelligence officer opened fire, wounding three protesters. The incident garnered international attention, leading to the expulsion of a Reuters correspondent who covered the event.
In the wake of March 11, Saudi authorities arrested scores of Shia who continued to protest for the release of political prisoners and recently detained protesters, and who were increasingly expressing solidarity with their Shia brethren in nearby Bahrain, after its government brutally suppressed pro-democracy protesters with the help of a Saudi-led intervention force. By March 29, the number of detained Saudi Shia stood at around 140, and that of recently detained non-Shia dissidents at around two dozen. Shia protests ceased after April 15 but the authorities continued to arrest those who still called for reform. On May 17, the secretary general of the Interior Ministry in Riyadh promised a delegation of Shia elders that the 180-plus Shia detainees from the Qatif area alone, including 17 children, would soon be released. Saudi authorities seem to have succeeded for now in preventing organized protests from taking hold. Early arrests of leading Sunni dissidents prevented a common popular platform for reform from emerging at a national level, and the roundups of large numbers of peaceful Shia protesters underscored the longstanding policy of zero-tolerance for any manner of organized protest. If the government releases the Shia detainees over the coming days it may assuage the anger that has fuelled their protests.
Saudi rulers have, for the time being, snuffed out any spark for reform, and the country remains in a state of generalized repression, quashing hopes for near-term improvements. But recent developments also show that calls for reform and activism on an individual or small group scale are continually growing. Saudi leaders would be foolish to think repression can be an indefinite and sustainable answer.
Christoph Wilcke is senior researcher for Saudi Arabia at Human Rights Watch