Is this the beginning of the Arab Spring in Saudi or just Shia unrest?

Published July 12th, 2012 - 05:15 GMT
Unverifiable video still of protestors mourning the death in Qatif
Unverifiable video still of protestors mourning the death in Qatif

Thousands took to the streets on Tuesday night in Saudi Arabia's restive Eastern Province for the funeral of a protester shot dead by Saudi police on Sunday.

Mohammad al-Filfil was killed on Sunday evening along with blogger Akbar Shakhouri in the village of Awamiyeh in Qatif during protests against the violent arrest of prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr.

Tuesday's peaceful march descended into Riyadh Street and Al-Quds Street, the two main streets in Qatif, with no reports of clashes with Saudi police.

Tawfiq al-Saif, an activist based in Qatif, told Al-Akhbar by phone that the situation remains “tense” following the arrest of Nimr and the killing of the two protesters.

“There was a lot of anger among the youth. There is a feeling that people are alienated and ignored by the state,” he said.

The oil-rich Eastern Province is home to most of Saudi Arabia's Shia Muslim minority, who complain about discrimination and neglect in the conservative Sunni kingdom.

Qatif has witnessed continued protests for greater rights over the past year, but Saif said Tuesday's mass rally was out of anger at the arrest of Nimr and the shootings.

“This protest in particular was instigated by the arrest of Sheikh Nimr and the deaths of the two protesters,” he said.

The crackdown drew criticism from Iran, with foreign ministry spokesperson Ramin Mehmanparast saying Tehran was "concerned by the violent actions carried out by the Saudi forces against religious figures and the population" in Qatif.

Mehmanparast called on Riyadh to "respond to the legitimate demands of the public and refrain from using violence against the people."

On Wednesday, Saudi Shia clerics and local dignitaries called for calm and self restraint.

"It is necessary to avoid an escalation with unforeseen consequences," said a statement obtained by AFP and signed by several people.

The signatories, including former Judge Abdullah al-Khenizi, also appealed to the authorities and to the general public to exercise "self restraint."

Saudi authorities had anticipated unrest in Qatif following the arrest of Nimr, and had avoided calls for the past eight months to move against the Shia cleric, Saif said.

But Salafi – an extreme branch of Sunni Islam – clerics upped the pressure on the Saudi regime in recent weeks to arrest Nimr, prompting authorities to pursue the Shia figure, Saif added.

“During the last four weeks, there was tense pressure on the government to do something [about Nimr], and apparently the government wanted to silence the other parties in the country, especially the Salafi sheikhs,” he said.

Saif said more protests were to be expected, citing the people's general frustration at the government for not bridging inequality in the state.

“People feel they are discriminated against. They feel the government has not fulfilled any of its promises. They feel they are not getting mutual treatment to the equal Saudis,” he said.

© Al-Akhbar. All rights reserved

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