Surge in Arab protests expected in Gulf states

Activists in Saudi Arabia have made unprecedented calls for mass demonstrations against the kingdom's absolute monarchy.

Saudi protests 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS)
Saudi protests 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Arab uprisings that spread to the conservative Gulf region face a crucial test this week in Saudi Arabia, where activists have made unprecedented calls for mass protests against the kingdom’s absolute monarchy.
Protests are also planned for Friday in other Gulf countries, including Yemen, Kuwait and Bahrain.
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The time after Friday prayers has proved to be crucial in popular uprisings that have brought down Tunisian and Egyptian rulers who once seemed invulnerable.
Gulf leaders are struggling to hold back an Internet-era generation of Arabs who appear less inclined to accept arguments appealing to religion and tradition to explain why ordinary citizens should be shut out of decision-making.
Saudi Arabia, the largest country in the Gulf, is home to Islam’s holiest sites – and is a long-time US ally that has ensured oil supplies for the West.
More than 32,000 people have backed a Facebook call to hold two demonstrations in the country, the first of them Friday.
Riyadh has tried to counter the call with promises of money and other measures – including a pro-government Facebook page “against the revolution” with 23,000 supporters.
The protest movements hit populous Yemen a month ago, and spread to the Gulf states, where dynasties secured their rule in colonial times.
Bahrainan – an island state, whose rulers look to Riyadh for support – has been the most vulnerable so far.
This week, hardline Shi’ite groups formed an alliance to ditch the monarchy and turn Bahrain into a republic.
Majority Shi’ites who resent domination by the al-Khalifa dynasty have staged pro-democracy protests. Analysts say Saudi pressure has been heavy on Manama to stamp them out.
Yemen is also set for an escalation after opposition groups – who have held pro-democracy marches for the past month – rejected veteran ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh’s offer of reforms Thursday.
A small number of Kuwaitis’ held protests this week, while activists and intellectuals in the United Arab Emirates petitioned the rulers for democratic elections.
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Last week Omanis clashed with police over jobs and corruption in government.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will travel to Egypt and Tunisia next week, becoming the most senior US official to visit the region after popular revolts toppled US-allied governments in both countries.
“I intend to convey strong support of the Obama administration and the American people, that we wish to be a partner in the important work that lies ahead as they embark on a transition to a genuine democracy,” Clinton told a congressional panel on Thursday.
“We have an enormous stake in ensuring that Egypt and Tunisia provide models for the kind of democracy that we want to see,” she added.
Clinton’s visit will allow her to personally assess the situation in Egypt – where the Obama administration gave strong support to protesters who ultimately forced the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, a long-time US ally.
She will also talk to transitional government officials in Tunisia, which launched the wave of political turmoil sweeping the Arab world with mass protests that toppled President Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali in January.
Meanwhile, in Iran security forces killed three people in the western province of Kurdistan who were behind an attack on a group of environmental workers, the official IRNA news agency reported Thursday.
IRNA said the three killed four environmental workers near the city of Sanandaj last Friday.

“Three terrorists... were killed in clashes with security forces Wednesday night. Another terrorist was also injured and later arrested,” it said.
Security forces in the west of Iran often clash with guerrillas from PJAK – an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. PJAK took up arms in 1984 for an autonomous ethnic state in southeast Turkey, and shelters in Iraq’s northeastern border provinces.