Taking to Streets in Saudi Arabia

On the 19th of December, a few hundred people demonstrated in Qatif, a predominantly Shiite area east of Saudi Arabia, to protest the Israeli siege on Gaza. The protesters lifted posters of Hizbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasarallah and chanted anti-Israeli and anti-US slogans. According to the website Rasid, the demonstration ended peacefully under the eyes of security forces who watched closely. However, tens of young men who demonstrated were arrested in the following week.

After Israel started their barbarian attack on Gaza last Saturday, thousands of angry demonstrators took to the streets in Egypt, Jordan, Yemen and other countries. In Saudi Arabia, where the law does not give people the right to demonstrate publicly, more than 60 political and human rights activists signed a letter to the Ministry of Interior asking for permission to hold a peaceful demonstration in Riyadh.

While activists in Riyadh were waiting for a reply from MOI, protesters in Qatif demonstrated again on Monday, but this time they were faced by the security forces and riot police who fired rubber bullets to break up the protest. Mansour al-Turki, spokesman of MOI, denied that such protest took place. “Street protests are banned in the Kingdom and that the security forces will intervene to enforce the ban,” he added. His denial is not surprising, but everyone knows that people of Qatif have a long history in street protests with major demonstrations held in 1979, 2002 and 2006.

Four activists who signed the letter were summoned to meet a senior official at MOI today who also said the country’s regulations do not allow such activities. The activists said nothing in the local laws bans street protests but they signed a pledge that they will not hold the demonstration which was planned to take place tomorrow in Nahda Street. Another activist who did not sign the letter said he does not need a permission from anyone to protest. Khalid al-Umair said that he and other activists will be there tomorrow “because we are simply exercising our natural right in expressing our opinion peacefully.”

This was the first time for a group of activists to ask for such permission, and it was expected that MOI would not give a positive response. Although the request was denied, it seemed to encourage more people to take similar steps. More than 200 students at King Abdul-Aziz University in Jeddah sent a letter today to the rector asking for permission to hold a demonstration but he refused saying the university is not the right place to protest.

People should be allowed to protest, but it seems that the government is afraid that people will realize the power of public demonstration and later use it not just to protest against Israel but also to demand their rights. Giving permission to these demonstrations would set a precedent that the government clearly doesn’t want to deal with its results and consequences. 2009 will be interesting.

UPDATE: Khalid al-Umair and Mohammed Abdullah al-Otaibi have been arrested Thursday noon.

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