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 assembly and expression; an independent judiciary; disbanding of the secret police; the release of all political prisoners and an increase in the minimum wage.
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 you.”‘
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 demonstrators?”’
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.”’