Sat, Mar 05, 2011 - Page 1 News List

Shiites take to streets in eastern Saudi oil province


Saudi Shiites staged protests in two towns in Saudi Arabia’s oil-producing Eastern Province on Thursday, demanding the release of prisoners they say are being held without trial.

Demonstrations of about 100 people were seen in the small Gulf coast town of Awwamiya, as well as in the nearby Shiite center of Qatif, demanding the release of those the protesters say were arrested for security reasons and who have been held, in some cases, for more than a decade.

“We want the prisoners free, but we also have other demands,” said Radi al-Suwaileh, who was in the Qatif march. “We want equality.”

They are calling for better access to jobs and to be treated as equals in the ultraconservative kingdom dominated by a rigid form of Sunni Islam, Wahhabism. Shiites say that, while their situation has improved under reforms launched by Saudi King Abdullah, but they still face restrictions in getting senior government jobs.

The government of Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy without an elected parliament that usually does not tolerate public dissent, denies these charges.

“We want jobs. I graduated from a US university, but did not get a job for 10 months,” said one young man who gave his name as Muhammad.

Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority mostly lives in the east, which holds much of the oil wealth of the world’s top crude exporter and is near Bahrain, scene of recent protests by majority Shiites against their Sunni rulers.

More than 2 million Shiiites are thought to live in the area and in recent years they have increasingly practiced their own religious rites thanks to the King’s reforms.

One woman clad in black, who called herself Umm Turki, said she wanted her husband, in prison for 13 years, back.

One held a placard saying: “We do not plan to overthrow the system.”

In Qatif, a 10 minute drive away, riot police wearing helmets arrived in two troop transport vehicles, blocking protesters from moving further along on a main thoroughfare.

Some wielded signs saying: “The reform movement wants reforms,” “God is great” and “We want our prisoners free.”

Last month, Saudi authorities released three prisoners after a previous protest by Shiites in Awwamiya.

Last week, King Abdullah returned to Riyadh after a three-month medical absence and unveiled US$37 billion in benefits to help lower and middle-income people among the 18 million Saudi nationals. The benefits included pay rises to offset inflation, unemployment benefits and affordable family housing.

The demonstrations in and near Qatif were much smaller than protests staged in 2009 after police launched a search for firebrand Shiite preacher Nimr al-Nimr, who had suggested in a sermon that Shiites could one day seek a separate state.

The secessionist threat, which analysts say was unprecedented since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, provoked anti-government protests, and was followed by clashes between the Sunni religious police and Shiite pilgrims near the tomb of Prophet Mohammad in the holy city of Medina.

Since then, Shiites say the situation has calmed down, but they are still waiting for promised reforms to be carried out.

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