Revolutions and uprisings have been springing up in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region since Tunisian fruit seller Mohammed Bouazizi lit himself on fire in Sidi Bouzid in December of 2010. Tunisia’s Ben Ali was the first Arab dictator to fall, inspiring large numbers of people from Egypt and Libya to Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria to take to the streets demanding justice.
In the nearly two years since the start of the Arab uprisings, Saudi Arabia has appeared unaffected by this trend. In reality, however, the country has been no exception to the rule and its citizens far from silent.
Unfortunately, media outlets inside and outside of Saudi Arabia have, for the most part, been blind to these truths. For instance, in April 2012, American Journalist Declan McCullagh summarized a talk on the political situation in Saudi with an article titled “No Arab Spring in Saudi Arabia Anytime Soon”. I was living in Saudi Arabia at the time, and protestors in the Eastern Province city of Qatif had already been taking to the streets for 2 months by the time this article was published. A number of those protesters had been shot, imprisoned, and even killed by Saudi government forces.
Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy. It was established in 1932 with the affirmation of the British, based on a tribal alliance between the Al Saud and Al Wahhab families. In the initial agreement between the two groups, the Al Saud were to act as the absolute rulers of the country, while the Al Wahhab – with their rigid Sunni Islamic interpretation – were to take charge of the State’s religious affairs.
Oil revenue makes up 87% of the country’s budget. Through a State system of no taxation and generous social welfare packages, financial payouts have been used to rob the population of political representation.
This model, which has continued to this day, is currently being challenged by a large number of citizens frustrated by its injustice. Since the demonstrations began in the Eastern Province city of Qatif in February of 2011, the Saudi government has managed to brush over the grievances and deaths by playing into sectarian sentiments. The majority of Saudi Arabia’s Shiites, who have been oppressed since the country’s founding, reside in the Eastern Province. The discrimination they have faced, as embodied in state policies, is based on Wahhabi religious discourse teaching that Shiites are Islam’s greatest enemy.
At first, the government’s sectarian rhetoric was accepted by the majority Sunni population. However, when a number of protestors in cities outside the Eastern Province began taking to the streets demanding justice, this sectarian discourse quickly came unraveled. In Riyadh and Qassim – two cities with populations traditionally known for their strict adherence to Sunni/Wahhabi Islam – people have protested the mistreatment of prisoners who have been held in horrible conditions without trial. Protestors also challenged state policies in which individuals were kidnapped and held without charge for extended periods. Often times, families learned only many months later that their loved ones had been arrested by security forces.
Women have also been demanding changes. In early 2011, women revived debates over the Saudi ban on women driving. Some Saudi women even got behind the wheel in protest. Leader of the Women2Drive campaign, Manal AlSharif – who said she was inspired by the Arab Spring – was arrested for a short time, and fired from her job for her activism.
In early 2012, hundreds of female students in Abha protested against discrimination and mismanagement at their University. Many were injured by security forces; others were imprisoned. Women have also stood alongside men protesting in Qatif, and have been central to organizing the prison protests in Riyadh and Qassim.
The stability of Saudi Arabia is an absolute myth. Although the country is heavily divided along tribal lines, religious sects, and liberal and conservative viewpoints, citizens of all different backgrounds have taken to the streets and actively pushed for change through a number of different outlets. Silencing Saudi Arabia’s citizens denigrates the lives stolen by security forces, and those who have been imprisoned for simply demanding basic human rights.
As much as Saudi Arabia would like to claim its population is satisfied with the status quo, the uprisings in Saudi have already began.
*Bayan Perazzo is a Professor with specialties in Middle East Politics and Islamic Studies. She tweets @BintBattuta87