Saudi Arabia’s Day of Rage
London Review of Books
Hugh Miles 8 March 2011
Tags: protests | saudi arabia
Pressure is building on the Saudi regime as opposition forces inside and outside
the country are planning a Day of Rage on Friday. Precise details haven’t been
released, for obvious reasons, but demonstrations are likely to start around 4
p.m. in cities across the Kingdom. Opposition activity on the internet is at
fever pitch and widespread civil disturbances are expected.
In recent days at least three different public statements calling for reform
have been issued, each with hundreds of influential signatories. Several new
political movements have been launched including the Islamic Umma party, led by
ten well-known clerics; the National Declaration of Reform, headed by the
well-known reformer Mohammed Sayed Tayib, with Islamist, liberal, Shia and Sunni
members; Dawlaty, an amorphous online movement with several thousand signatories
and thousands more accumulating every day; and the Al Dustorieen movement of
lawyers, linked to Prince Talal bin Abdulaziz, who are calling for a response
from the king on a petition they submitted in 2005.
All the groups are making similar demands, including a transition to a
constitutional monarchy; a democratically elected leadership; freedom of
and expression; an independent judiciary; disbanding of the secret
; the release of all political prisoners and an increase in the minimum
Online pages calling for revolt are proliferating. One anti-government Facebook
page attracted 10,000 supporters in less than a week and now has more than
30,000. Other, apparently independent statements of unprecedented boldness
issued by young people inside the Kingdom have also been appearing online.
Both Sunni and Shia Saudi opposition groups say they are under intense pressure
to make a move before 11 March, but are trying to hold the line so as to garner
as much media exposure as possible and secure a large turnout. ‘We didn’t want
to go quickly, but the people took the initiative and issued a date,’ one of the
organisers told me. ‘Now the momentum is there and there is an avalanche of
calls for revolt. The speed with which things are happening is beyond our
ability to keep up.’
There is no tolerance for freedom of association or expression in Saudi Arabia,
and in the past the security forces have not hesitated to use force to crush
unrest. But Sunni opposition sources claim to have received assurances from the
police that this time they will refuse orders to fire on demonstrators.
‘I have been told by many members of the security forces that they sympathise
with us 100 per cent and see us as saviours of them as well as of the nation,’
an organiser said. ‘The army, National Guard and even the Royal Guard are with
us. They tell us, “We can’t declare our support publicly until you break that
psychological barrier but just do that and we will switch sides and support
Anti-government activists say the police have covertly released demonstrators
unharmed after promising them their support in future. ‘During two recent
demonstrations in Jedda those of us who were arrested were released in the next
street by policemen who acted as if they were taking us to the mubahith. When
nobody was looking they opened the door of the bus and said: “Quickly, go!”
There is a strong feeling among the security forces that the regime will not
survive and so they say: “Why would we put ourselves in danger of being arrested
in the future and taken to court and sentenced to death because we have killed
In the event that force is used, however, organisers expect the demonstrations
quickly to turn violent: unlike in Egypt or Tunisia, in Saudi Arabia there’s a
large number of guns in private hands. ‘In Saudi Arabia an estimated 80 to 90
per cent of families have a weapon in their house and around 50 per cent of
those weapons are AK-47s,’ an opposition source told me. ‘If I go on a peaceful
demonstration and I am shot by the police and I am the son of a tribe then 100
per cent definitely my brother will bring a Kalashnikov and kill the policeman
who killed me and he will kill more, five or ten. They know this, the police,
and so I’ve been told by many ordinary individuals and officers that no way will
they shoot us even if they are given orders and if force is used it will
backfire in a very aggressive manner.’
Perhaps the biggest obstacle the organisers face is persuading enough ordinary
people to take part in mass peaceful demonstrations. ‘Since there is no culture
or history of mass demonstrations or peaceful protest in KSA our biggest
obstacle is the psychological barrier so we have difficulty in mobilising people
to make that first nucleus,’ one of them said. ‘Our supporters say: “Ask us to
kill anybody and we are ready. We will go and invade the governor’s office or
storm the Ministry of Interior.” But they refuse to participate in a peaceful
demonstration as they don’t want the humiliation of going unarmed to be hit over
the head by a stupid policeman. They say: “I am the son of my father! It is
against my pride to be arrested in the street and hit without arms.” But once we
reach a critical mass of 5000 people gathered together in Jedda, Riyadh or
another major city, the regime is over. If I was Obama I would contact me now
and say: “Let’s do something.”’