Saudi Arabia reaches out to country's Shiite minority

After demonstrations last week, Shiite community leaders and human rights activists in the Eastern Province said they interpret steps as attempts to reduce tensions.

RIYADH // The Saudi government, moving to defuse tensions with its Shiite minority, has reached out to Shiite leaders in recent days and released more than a score of protesters detained during demonstrations last week.

Tawfiq Al Amir, a prominent Shiite cleric arrested after delivering a sermon in late February calling for a constitutional monarchy, was released on Sunday. He was immediately invited to meet Prince Muhammed bin Fadh, the governor of the Eastern Province.

And Tuesday night, Shiite community leaders from the Shiite majority city of Qatif were among those received in an official audience with King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz. Pictures of the king shaking hands with one of the Qatif notables made the front page of most Saudi newspapers yesterday.

Shiite community leaders and human rights activists in the Eastern Province said they interpret these steps as attempts to reduce tensions. "This is the tendency I feel," said Jafar Al Shayeb, chairman of Qatif's municipal council.

The moves come amid anonymous calls on Facebook for street protests against the government on Friday that have created an atmosphere of anticipation about what will happen.

Intended for residents of the entire country, the Facebook appeals could have the most resonance in the kingdom's Eastern Province, where most Saudi Shiites reside. Over the past two weeks, Shiite youths have held short-lived, peaceful protests in that region demanding the release of Shiite prisoners they say are being held illegally.

The government responded by releasing nine prisoners.

The Facebook calls appear to take their inspiration from Egypt's revolutionary movement, which led to the fall of former president Hosni Mubarak.

There is a mood in Saudi professional and business circles that the kingdom should move faster on economic reforms and also begin political reforms. This was apparent in at least four open letters written to the king since his return from medical leave February 23.

Despite this mood, there is widespread scepticism among Saudis and foreign observers that protests will materialise on Friday on anywhere near the scale seen in other Arab states.

Bander Alnogaithan, 32, a Riyadh lawyer, said: "It's not clear who is behind these calls and I personally don't support them. I don't think we have reached the level that we need such a revolution."

Mr Alnogaithan said that most Saudis "are happy with the royal family [and believe that] all we need to do is to fix the current system." Current policies dealing with unemployment, education, health, and minorities "are not working," he said, "so they should be changed to be more efficient."

Anticipation of possible protests in the kingdom has contributed to the rise in oil prices and sent the Saudi stock market tumbling and the Saudi stock market reeling. The Facebook calls "to a degree created an unnecessary panic," said John Sfakianakis, chief economist with Saudi Fransi Bank in Riyadh.

The threat has been exaggerated, he said. "If people want to demonstrate that's fine but … what happens next? Are they going to drink the oil?"

The Saudi stock market, which began a big decline in mid-January after Egypt's revolution began, has risen steadily since Saturday after strong statements of confidence and commitment to the Saudi economy by government officials, Mr Sfakianakis said.

As for the bigger issue of calls for reform, Mr Sfakianakis said that while what is happening around the region was a wake-up call for the government, it was not turning a blind eye to people's demands. He cited the US$36 billion (Dh132bn) package of economic benefits announced by King Abdullah when he returned to the kingdom.

Along with economic benefits and conciliatory outreach to the Shiites, the government has also put potential protesters on notice that they will be dealt with firmly. In a statement Saturday, the Ministry of Interior reminded the public that demonstrations are illegal and would not be tolerated.

This was followed by a message from government-employed Islamic clerics that street protests are against Islamic law.

Shiite leaders have reciprocated the government's accommodating stance. In Tuesday night's audience with the king, the Shiite cleric Sheikh Mansur Salman said that "on behalf of the people of Qatif, we do not aspire to anything but your presence for this country … because you are the guarantee of its safety."

Ibrahim Mogaiteeb, head of Human Rights First in Dammam, noted that the government had also recently allowed some Shiite mosques that it had ordered shut down to reopen. In addition, Prince Mohammed, the region's governor, has promised another meeting with Shiite leaders to discuss their complaints, which centre on discrimination particularly in obtaining government jobs, as well as being able to build Shiite mosques.

"I personally hope the government is coming to its senses and will become more responsive" to these grievances, Mr Mogaiteeb said.