Saturday, 26 February 2011

audi Arabia: First Signs of Uprising in World’s Top Oil Exporter, by Finian Cunningham

Saudi Arabia: First Signs of Uprising in World’s Top Oil Exporter 

By Finian Cunningham

The popular uprisings across the Middle East are sparking similar unrest in the 
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, with youth groups and workers in that country now 
calling for a “Day of Rage” demonstration in the capital, Riyadh, on March 11.

Already there have been protests last week in the city of Qatif and other towns 
in the country’s oil-rich Eastern Province demanding, among things, the release 
of political prisoners and a raft of social reforms. There are also reports of 
prominent Shia clerics being detained by the Saudi Sunni authorities, and 
security forces mobilizing in anticipation of further protests.

Sadek al-Ramadan, a human rights activist in Al Asha, Eastern Province, said: 
“People here are watching closely the protest movements across the region, which 
are tapping into long-held demands for reforms in Saudi Arabia.”

Al-Ramadan said that there are “deep frustrations” in Saudi society over high 
levels of poverty, unemployment, poor housing and perceived widespread 
corruption among the rulers of the world’s top oil exporter whose Gross Domestic 
Product last year is estimated at $622 billion.

An indication of the concern among the Saudi monarchy about growing unrest in 
the country was a closed meeting this week between King Abdullah and King Hamad 
al-Khalifa of Bahrain. The latter travelled to Riyadh to greet his 87-year-old 
Saudi counterpart on his return from the US and Morocco, where the ailing ruler 
had been receiving medical treatment. On the same day, Wednesday, the Saudi 
government unveiled a $37 billion social fund aimed at tackling youth 
unemployment and chronic shortages in affordable housing. A 15 per cent hike in 
salaries for government employees was also announced.

Al-Ramadan said that while the country’s minority Shia communities have “felt 
discrimination and repression most keenly over many decades, their grievances 
are also being shared increasingly by the majority of Sunni people”. Saudi 
Arabia’s population is estimated at around 19 million, with an expatriate 
workforce of some eight million.

“Unemployment is as high as 50 per cent among Saudi youth, whether Shia or 
Sunni, and there is a serious shortfall in housing and education facilities,” 
said Al-Ramadan. “People want more transparent governance, an end to corruption, 
and better distribution of wealth and welfare.”

He said that there was widespread recognition that reform in Saudi Arabia is 
badly needed. “The question is: how far will the call for reforms go?”

The Saudi authorities are undoubtedly mindful of the rapid escalation of 
anti-government protests in the neighbouring Persian Gulf island state of 
Bahrain, which is only an hour’s drive away from the Eastern Province across a 
25-kilometre causeway. Noticeably, the last two weeks have seen a big fall in 
the numbers of Saudis who usually come to Bahrain for a weekend getaway, with 
reports that Saudi officials have been turning away would-be visitors trying to 
cross the causeway.

Before the recent rallies began in Bahrain on February 14, small groups of 
Bahraini protesters were calling for relatively mild constitutional reforms. But 
after a week of heavy-handed repression resulting in seven civilian deaths and 
hundreds of injured, the protest movement in Bahrain is now bringing up to 
200,000 people on to the streets every night demanding the overthrow of the 
al-Khalifa monarchy.

In the coming weeks, the Saudi rulers face a difficult balancing act. Too little 
reform or too much repression by the authorities could set off the kind of 
full-blown uprisings sweeping the Middle East. And there is a lot at stake for 
the kingdom’s rulers. Up to 90 of the country’s oil production and processing is 
located in its restive Eastern Province, where the state-owned oil company Saudi 
Aramco has its headquarters in Dhahran. Some 80 per cent of Saudi Arabia’s 
national income is due to its oil and gas sectors.

Middle East analyst Ralph Schoenman said: The oil wealth of Saudi Arabia is 
concentrated almost entirely in the Shia-dominated Eastern Province - that 
sector of Arabia where popular disaffection is as profound and political 
alienation as explosive as it is in Bahrain.”

Schoenman added: “Beneath the appearance of calm, the Saudi royal family and 
King Abdullah have been consulting frantically with the other Gulf Sunni feudal 
sheikhdoms - from Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates to Qatar and Oman.” 

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