By William Tucker
The Associated Press is reporting that Saudi Arabian police have fired into a crowd of protesters in the eastern province of Qatif. Over the past week the province has had several small demonstrations, predominately by Shiites, demanding more political rights. Saudi forces responded by detaining protest leaders and an influential cleric as a means of disrupting the demonstrations. This tactic was unsuccessful and the Saudis have now turned to more violent means of breaking up the protests.
Unrest among Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority is nothing new, but these recent demonstrations bear watching. Protests are generally illegal in the kingdom and are usually broken up violently, so it is interesting that these people took to the streets knowing full well what would happen. What this essentially means is that the number of people participating in the demonstrations isn’t what’s important – its that these demonstrations are taking place at all. Further protests are scheduled to take place tomorrow and this recent violence may actually increase the number attending.
Saudi Arabia has survived turbulent times before and it will likely survive this recent bout of unrest. That doesn’t necessarily mean it will be easy. What we can expect in the next few hours leading up to tomorrows demonstrations is a significant increase in security in the oil rich east. The Saudi’s have already moved an addition 15,000 National Guard soldiers to the east to head off the unrest. Those planning on protesting tomorrow will surely be preparing to face off against a very nervous security apparatus making an already unstable situation significantly worse.
*In 1979 a large group of radicals seized control of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, but because of limited press in the kingdom many of the details of what happened were a mystery. I bring this up because Ayatollah Khomeini, the father of Iran’s Islamic revolution, had blamed the assault on the U.S. and used the event as an excuse to call for demonstrations throughout the Muslim world. This resulted in protests in Qatif which were put down by Saudi forces using everything from artillery to crew served weapons. When it comes to unrest in that area of the kingdom things can get rapidly out of hand.