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Fearing spill over of Bahrain riots Saudis release Shiite cleric

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Message Abdus Sattar Ghazali
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Amid mounting unrest in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Shiite majority province and elsewhere in the kingdom, the Saudi authorities Sunday released a prominent Shiite cleric, Sheikh Tawfiq Al-Amer, who was detained on 27 February after a call for a constitutional monarchy.

On February 25, in a sermon at the mosque Imam Baqi in Hofuf, Al-Hasa, Sheikh Tawfiq called for a constitutional monarchy in Saudi Arabia that would include the development of the country's Constitution, to guarantee the separation of the three powers and legalize formation of political parties in the Kingdom. He also criticized the Kingdom's state of democracy in the world, saying that among the 167 countries, Saudi Arabia is ranked 160 in the world and 22 among Arab countries.

His detention sparked demonstrations in Hofuf. On Friday, hundreds of young people in the city started the march from the mosque of Baqi, heading to the headquarters of Al-Ahsa province. During the march, protesters raised pictures of Sheikh Amer and called for his release. Saudi cyber activists had created a group on Facebook calling for a "Day of Anger" on Friday to press demand for his release.

For about two weeks, Saudi Shiites have staged small protests in the kingdom's east, which holds much of the oil wealth of the world's top crude exporter and is near Bahrain, scene of protests by majority Shiites against their Sunni rulers. According to media reports, Shiite protests in Saudi Arabia started in the area of the main city Qatif and its neighbor Awwamiya and spread to the town of Hofuf on Friday. The demands were mainly for the release of prisoners held without trial.

Another protest took place in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, after Friday prayer. According to the activists, as many as 40 anti-government demonstrators gathered outside Al-Rajhi Mosque for a short protest. At least one man involved in organizing the protest was reportedly arrested by Saudi police. Some of the protesters carried signs showing a map of Saudi Arabia that did not contain the words "Kingdom of Saudi Arabia," a clear affront to the Saudi royal family.

Shiites' complaints

According to US Religious Freedom Report 2010, Saudi Shiites faced significant employment discrimination in the public and private sector. A very small number of Shiites occupied high-level positions in government-owned companies and government agencies. Many Shiites believed that openly identifying themselves as Shiite would negatively affect career advancement. In the public sector, Shiites were significantly underrepresented in national security related positions, including the Ministry of Defense and Aviation, the National Guard and the Ministry of the Interior.

The Report went on to say that there was no formal policy concerning the hiring and promotion of Shiites in the private sector, but anecdotal evidence suggested that in some companies, including the oil and petrochemical industries, a "glass ceiling" existed and well-qualified Shiites were passed over for less qualified Sunni colleagues. Engineer Abdulshaheed al-Sunni, a high-ranking Shiite official at the King Abdulaziz Sea Port in Dammam, reportedly resigned in September 2009 due to oppression and injustice which prevented him from being promoted.

Members of the Shiite minority were also subjected to political discrimination. For example, although Shiites compose approximately 10 to 15 percent of the citizen population and approximately one-third to one-half of the Eastern Province population, they were underrepresented in senior government positions. There were no Shiite ministers, deputy ministers, governors, deputy governors or ministry branch directors in the Eastern Province, and only three of the 59 government-appointed municipal council members were Shi'a.

"Day Of Rage" on 11 March

Saudi activists have set up Facebook pages calling for protests on March 11 and 20, with more than 17,000 supporters combined. The activists say the government is closely monitoring social media to nip in the bud any protests inspired by uprisings that swept Arab countries, toppling entrenched leaders in Egypt and Tunisia.

In a bid to stop March 11 "Day of Rage", Saudi Arabian authorities have banned all protests. On Saturday, Saudi Arabia's interior ministry issued a statement deeming all sorts of protests in the kingdom illegal with the explanation that demonstrations are not in line with Islamic law and values of Saudi society.

"Regulations in the kingdom forbid categorically all sorts of demonstrations, marches and sit-ins ... as they contradict Islamic Sharia law and the values and traditions of Saudi society," said a ministry statement published on the official SPA state news agency. The kingdom's regulations totally ban all sorts of demonstrations, marches, sit-ins," the interior ministry said in a statement, adding security forces would stop all attempts to disrupt public order.

Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy. It does not tolerate any form of public dissent, does not have an elected parliament or any political parties.

Spillover from Bahrain

Saudi Arabia has been watching with extreme concern radicalization of the Arab masses and the wave of unrest in the oil-rich Persian Gulf region that has already hit Bahrain, Oman, and Yemen.

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Author and journalist. Author of Islamic Pakistan: Illusions & Reality; Islam in the Post-Cold War Era; Islam & Modernism; Islam & Muslims in the Post-9/11 America. Currently working as free lance journalist. Executive Editor of American (more...)
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