The civil war in Libya has been an unexpected gift to Saudi Arabia: It has diverted the eyes of the world away from how the House of Saud is dealing with its own version of Arab Spring.
The oil-rich kingdom is pursuing a two-pronged strategy.
The first prong is to provide citizens with financial incentives designed to quell deep frustrations with the regime and keep people off the streets.
On February 23, King Abdullah began implementing that strategy by announcing a $35 billion package of financial assistance to the unemployed and support for first-time homebuyers. Then, on March 18, he announced new assistance totaling $96 billion for similar measures, in addition to creating 60,000 new security sector jobs.
The second prong of Saudi strategy is silence. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), "While King Abdullah announces financial gifts to Saudi citizens, his police arrest those who want more meaningful change."
And "the scale of arrests has risen dramatically over the past two weeks," according to Christoph Wilcke, HRW's senior Middle East researcher in New York.
Saudi's political prisoners number in the thousands. Some have been imprisoned for years, without charges, lawyers or trials. Others have been swept up by security police for trying to organize "Days of Rage" demonstrations in Saudi cities to advocate for a constitutional monarchy and a more open society. Still others have been jailed for gathering outside prisons to demand the release of political prisoners.
And it is fair to say that, aside from a few mainstream outlets, the media has treated Saudi Arabia like Las Vegas: "What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas."
Even Saudi's deployment of more than a thousand troops to neighboring Bahrain -- to help the Sunni minority rulers to hold on to power over the Shia majority -- drew only passing media interest. On television, most of that interest focused on the visuals: Saudi armored troop carriers lumbering across the 26 km. causeway connecting the two countries.
HRW reports that Saudi Arabia's minority Shi'ites also complain of discrimination, saying they often struggle to get senior government jobs and benefits available to other citizens.
In early March, the Interior Ministry and the Council of Senior Religious Scholars publicly reiterated the government's ban on protests ahead of demonstrations for a Saudi "Day of Rage" that had been called for March 11.
That day, hundreds of people demonstrated in the streets of Qatif and al-Ahsa', calling for the release of nine Shia men held for over 13 years without charge or trial, and dozens of people demonstrated in Riyadh, calling for the release of thousands of Sunni security suspects held without charge or trial, some for over seven years.
Similar protests took place in the Eastern Province on March 17 and 18, and in Riyadh on March 20.
And Saudi's response? According to HRW, more than 100 people were arrested in the Qatif district, and about 45 in the al-Ahsa' district, both Shia population centers in the kingdom's Eastern Province. A smaller number of people were jailed in the Riyadh and Qasim governorates.
Security forces in the Eastern Province arrested scores of people during protests there on March 11, 17, and 18. They arrested four people on March 25 during small protests in al-Rabi'iyya and al-"Awwamiyya, towns in the Qatif district, a local activist told HRW.
On March 17, HRW spoke to two people who took part in the demonstration that day. They said that the protests were peaceful, but that at 8:25 p.m. a member of the security forces in civilian clothes drew a pistol and shot two protesters, Ali al-Zayid and Ali al-Saffar, wounding them. The two were among a throng trying to take away the camera of a suspected mabahith (the secret police agency of the Saudi Ministry of Interior) agent.
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