The American Kafir

2011/03/11

Protests in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Yemen

Filed under: Bahrain, National Security, Protests, Saudi Arabia, Yemen — - @ 5:59 pm

Source Link: Stratfor
Protests in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Yemen
FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
Saudi policemen stand guard March 11 in front of Riyadh’s Al Rajhi mosque

Protests occurred March 11 in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Bahrain, timed to coincide with Friday prayers. While the Saudi protests were much calmer than expected, tens of thousands of people demonstrated in Yemen amid a deteriorating political situation for President Ali Abdullah Saleh. In Bahrain, well-prepared security forces blocked a march on the presidential palace by hard-line Shiite protesters amid rising sectarian tensions.

Saudi Arabia

In the first major test of whether the world’s largest oil producer is truly immune to the unrest that has swept across the Middle East, demonstrations in Saudi Arabia on March 11 were much calmer than some expected. Groups of protesters numbering from the dozens to the low hundreds began gathering in the afternoon in the Shia-populated and oil-rich Eastern Province cities of Hofuf, Qatif and Al-Ahsa amid a heavy security presence. Protesters chanted slogans calling for the release of Shiite detainees and greater political freedoms as helicopters hovered above. Saudi riot police reportedly chased demonstrators down streets, fired rubber bullets to disperse the crowds, continued arrests and called over loudspeakers for people to stay in their houses.


Protests in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Yemen
(click here to enlarge image)

Meanwhile, so-called Day of Rage protests failed to materialize in Riyadh. Security forces increased their presence on the streets of the capital in anticipation of protests organized on Facebook by a group of Sunni youths, activists and intellectuals. But media at the scene reported only one person claiming to be a protester.

The low turnout may be the result of Saudi security forces’ firing rubber bullets at protesters March 10 in Qatif, wounding three. However, aside from the effect of this seemingly successful intimidation tactic, it is possible Iran has decided to pull back from provoking a crisis with the Saudis. With Bahrain simmering and a protest movement threatening to take root at home, the Saudis have been attempting to read Iranian intentions and determine the strength of Tehran’s influence over the Saudi and Bahraini Shiite communities, as well as to gauge how far Iran would be willing to go in trying to destabilize its Arab neighbors.

Fears of a genuine crisis in Saudi Arabia have not subsided, and another round of Facebook-organized national protests is planned for March 20. However, the fizzling of the much-publicized March 11 demonstrations has done nothing to increase those fears.

Yemen

The situation in Yemen is turning increasingly dire for embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Tens of thousands of protesters, consisting of a variety of Islamist and socialist political actors, youths and academics, filled Sanaa’s streets March 11 to call for Saleh’s ouster in what appeared to be the largest demonstration to date in the country. Additional protests in the southern city of Aden, where secessionist sentiment runs strong, turned violent as Yemeni riot police reportedly opened fire and used tear gas to try to disperse thousands of demonstrators. Meanwhile, low-level al Qaeda activity has gradually been picking up in the country’s southeastern hinterland; the latest incident was a March 11 attack by suspected al Qaeda militants in Hadramawt that left four policemen dead.

Saleh has so far been able to hold onto significant tribal and army support, due largely to the fact that he has filled key positions in his security apparatus with relatives and tribesmen. This gives him some staying power, but his ability to defuse the demonstrations through political concessions short of his own resignation remains highly doubtful. His latest concession, a March 10 offer to draft by the end of the year a new constitution that would guarantee the independence of Yemen’s parliament and judiciary and transfer powers from the executive branch to a parliamentary system, was immediately rejected by the opposition.

Bahrain

Thousands of hard-line Shiite demonstrators calling for the overthrow of the Bahraini monarchy carried out a planned march toward the royal palace in Manama on March 11. However, when they reached the Sunni-populated area of Riffa, where the palace sits, they were blocked by a wall of riot police and barbed wire. The Shia participating in the march belonged to the newly created “Coalition for a Republic,” composed primarily of members of the Haq and Wafa movements, both of which are banned by the government. Brief clashes between the demonstrators and pro-government Sunnis occurred, reportedly after security forces allowed the latter to pass through police lines and engage the protesters. No deaths were reported, though security forces did eventually fire rubber bullets and tear gas into the crowd. The Interior Ministry in a subsequent statement justified that decision as necessary to prevent Sunnis and Shia from clashing in the streets.

Bahraini security forces were well prepared for the event. The Interior Ministry issuing a warning statement before it began in an effort to stave off the march, stating that it threatened to exacerbate already rising sectarian tensions. The statement also cautioned that security forces would not hesitate to clamp down on anyone who did not heed warnings.

The government is not the only faction warning of increased sectarian tensions in the country. The hard-line Coalition for a Republic was created out of an internal split in the Shiite opposition. This split also caused the more moderate, mainstream faction, led by Shiite Islamist group Al Wefaq, to come to a temporary alliance with Sunnis who support the continued reign of the current government. Al Wefaq has demurred on the issue of actually beginning negotiations with the government, and one of its main goals remains forcing the resignation of long-serving Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa. Though it maintains its staunch opposition to the current government, Al Wefaq continues to support the preservation of the institution of the monarchy, and thus explicitly expressed its opposition to the March 11 hard-line Shiite march. Indeed, hours before the procession began, the leading Shiite cleric in Bahrain, Sheikh Isa Qassim, who is seen as Al Wefaq’s spiritual guide, attempted to warn Bahraini Shia away from the hard-liners. He reportedly told worshipers at Friday prayers that the government was inciting sectarian tension and called on potential protesters not to “indulge in anything that will bring more suffering to the society.”

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