BBC News

Saudi Arabia: Calls for political reform muted

By Michael Buchanan
BBC News, Saudi Arabia

image captionKhaled al-Johani: The only person to turn up for Saudi Arabia's day of protest

The only man to protest on Saudi Arabia's day of rage has suffered in prison, his family say.

Khaled al-Johani was arrested minutes after going to the courthouse in Riyadh and giving a BBC interview in which he called for democracy and described the country as a big jail.

His family have now told the BBC that they were not allowed to see him for the first 58 days of his incarceration. And when they did see him, says his brother, Abdullah al-Johani, their concerns increased.

"He has lost a lot of weight. The situation is sad and he is depressed. He doesn't have any of his own clothes and we can't give him food or money."

Khaled al-Johani is one of more than 160 dissidents who have been arrested by the Saudi authorities since February, according to Human Rights Watch.

On Tuesday a judge in Jeddah sent 40 people, charged with instigation and calling for protests against the ruler, to face a court that specialises in security and terrorism cases.

The interior ministry spokesman, General Mansour Sultan al-Turki is unapologetic.

"Saudis…do not have anything to demonstrate for. The Grand Mufti has talked about this and [protesting] is un-Islamic behaviour."

Restive Shia

Despite the edict, small protests do take place. In the Awamiyya district of the town of Qatif in eastern Saudi Arabia, groups of teenagers have been gathering after Friday prayers for several weeks.

The area is almost exclusively Shia and impoverished, with unpaved roads, dilapidated housing, run-down shops and high levels of unemployment.

image captionThe primarily Shia Awamiyya district in the town of Qatif has seen small protests for several weeks

Protesters have been making a series of demands, from a Saudi withdrawal from Bahrain and the release of political prisoners to more economic development, in this, the main oil-producing province of Saudi Arabia.

During a visit on a recent evening, there was a palpable sense of nervousness in the air. Getting anyone to talk about the protests was almost impossible.

Teenagers who were playing football said they never talked politics; residents on the street said they didn't have anything to do with the demonstrations, despite the glint in their eyes.

Eventually one man agreed to talk to me - but he insisted that I did not name him as he did not want to get into trouble.

He thought the protests futile.

"This is only spoiling our reputation. Now when you go to search for a job, they say you are a protester, you don't deserve a job. The government do whatever they want - you have no choice to protest."

Jobless youth

A few miles away from Awamiyya, I attended a meeting of the Thulatha Cultural Forum, where the topic under discussion was the right of women to vote.

Municipal elections are scheduled for September but only men will be able to participate.

A legal challenge to the ban on female voters will be heard by a court in Jeddah next week.

Hannan al-Sheikh, a Lebanese author who spoke at the forum, says the development is crucial for the future of Saudi Arabia.

"When society is only half-working, it means we are not developing in the right way."

Of more concern to most people are jobs. Youth unemployment is running at about 40% in a country where two-thirds of the population is under 30.

Mohammad and his friend, Khaled, spent tens of thousands of dollars overseas training to become pilots. Now back home, they cannot get a job with an airline.

Mohammad has two jobs - working as a taxi driver and for a medical company - to service the loan he took out to study. "There is a law that companies should hire Saudis," he says. "But most of the companies... don't follow it."

Khaled can't find any work and admits to being depressed. But he says he is not alone.

"My friends are pilots, teachers, electrical engineers, mechanical engineers - they are not finding jobs. They have to wait years."

Buying support

In recognition of the problems, and to quell any major protests, ruling King Abdullah has gone on an unprecedented spending spree.

image captionSaudi Arabia's King Abdullah has promised to spend more than $100bn on social programs

More than $100bn is going to be spent on various social programmes - raising public-sector wages; more state aid to help people buy houses; and benefits, for the first time, for the country's rapidly increasing number of unemployed people.

While Saudis do want reform, most believe that the monarchy still has the capacity to listen to them and take action without people having to resort to the streets.

And Jafar al-Shayeb , a human-rights activist, says the state still has the upper hand.

"There are several cards they can play. It's a wealth state, supported by a religious establishment. [Also] society here has been, for a long time, politically marginalised, not sharing power or discussing issues.

"So because of all these reasons, it will take a longer time [to achieve change] than it does in other states."

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