Saudi police officers opened fire on a protest march in one of its eastern provinces on Thursday, wounding three according to witnesses and a Saudi official, the New York Times reported. The crackdown came on the eve of a panned "day of rage" throughout the oil-rich kingdom that Saudi officials say they will not tolerate.
Witnesses described the small protest march in the largely Shiite town of Qatif as peaceful, but an Interior Ministry spokesman alleged demonstrators attacked police before officers took the decision to fire, Reuters reported. The spokesman said police fired over the protesters’ heads, but that three people were injured in the melee, including an officer.
The clashed underscored growing tensions between Saudi Arabia's Shiite minority, which is demanding greater enfranchisement from a government that officially sanctions Wahabi Islam, a zealous form of Sunni orthodoxy. Mohammad Zaki Al-Khabbaz, a human rights activist in Qatif, said that security forces fired tear gas and shot in the air trying to disperse the crowd.
Abdulwahab Al-Oraid, a Qatif resident who watched the march, said it was unclear why the police opened fire. “We think this is a message: ‘Don’t protest in any Shiite areas on Friday,'" Al-Oraid said. Witnesses could not say whether police fired rubber bullets intended for crowd control or other kinds of ammunition.
Residents across Saudi Arabia report beefed up security on the streets and closed access to major squares in big cities where protesters are expected to gather Friday. “Streets are packed with police vehicles,” said Mohamad Al-Qahtani, a human rights activist in Riyadh, the capital. “I have never seen anything like this. It says that the regime fears its people.”
Rattled by the protests that have wrought chaos in the Middle East and Africa, brought down regimes in Egypt and Tunisia, led to civil war, and led the monarchs of Jordan and Morocco to scramble for reform, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah previously announced a $37 billion domestic aid package upon his return to the Kingdom.
But aid dollars do not appear to have impressed the protest movement in Saudi Arabia and the winds of malcontent continue to blow in Gulf states. On the same day as the Qatif crackdown foreign ministers from the Gulf Cooperation Council met in the Saudi capitol of Riyadh to pledge $20 billion in aid for social development programs for Bahrain and Oman, where protests have begun to take hold.
Wary eyes in the Gulf are on Iran, the Shiite power-house many believe are behind Shiite protests throughout the region. Saudi government officials have made clear, if dollars will not work, they will take firmer measures. Saudi foreign minister Saud Al-Faisal warned last night the monarchy would, "cut off each finger directed toward the kingdom."