The governments of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have gone to great lengths to control information about the ongoing uprisings in their countries. This is part of their efforts to crush the democracy movements that have sought to overthrow the ruling monarchies.
The protests are part of the Arab Spring uprisings that began in Tunisia in late 2010 and spread across the Middle East and north Africa.
In Saudi Arabia, the al-Saud regime has tightened media laws since protests began. Protests in Saudi Arabia have been smaller in scale than other countries, but have provided a consistent challenge to the corrupt and despotic US-backed monarchy.
Jadaliyya.com said on April 2: “Relaying information or images of Saudi protests carries a prison sentence of up to ten years, with thousands of dollars in fines …
“Most Internet sites that carry information critical of the Saudi ruling family, as well as those that simply relay calls that challenge the status quo are blocked.”
This is combined with state-controlled media coverage that distorts the reporting of protests, often dismissing them as sectarian actions from Shia Muslims or plots run by the government of Iran.
This has left most of the population unaware of the struggles against the government.
The most active area has been in and around Qatif in the Eastern Province, where protesters have come under intense repression.
In an Jadaliyya interview with the organisers of the Eastern Province Revolution Twitter and Facebook page, a representative from the group detailed the collective punishment levelled at the democracy movement in Qatif. This included the arbitrary kidnapping of hundreds of people by the government, who offered their release if the protests stopped.
This “coincided with the complete blockade of Qatif and the setting up of checkpoints all over the region” in order to harass the population.
When this failed, the government formed gangs of armed thugs made up of prisoners to attack protesters. After this, the military was used to assassinate protest leaders, organisers and photographers.
Despite this, the movement has remained strong and protests have continued.
Al-Alam reported on September 7 that thousands protested in the city of al-Qatif, demanding the release of political prisoners and “political reforms based on justice and freedom in governance, and equality between the different sects and social classes”.
An Eastern Province Revolution representative told Jadaliyya: “Our biggest challenge is US support for Al Saud on all fronts, including intelligence and military. Al Saud cannot act against the people without the ‘Americans’.”
Saudi Arabia is the most powerful supporter of Western imperialism in the region, and plays a key role in aiding the projection of US power across the Arab world.
The Saudi government’s suppression of protests also extends to neighbouring Bahrain. Saudi tanks and troops invaded the country in April last year along with forces from the United Arab Emirates to help Bahrain’s al-Khalifa monarchy put down the big protests calling for its downfall.
The protests at first demanded democratic reforms, but began calling for the downfall of the monarchy after peaceful protesters were brutally attacked by police.
The protests — which at their height mobilised hundreds of thousands — were led mostly by Shia Muslims, who make up the majority of the population. Shia face systemic discrimination from the Sunni Muslim monarchy, who use this divide-and-rule tactic to maintain control.
Since the Saudi invasion, authorities have used violent harassment of protesters and Shia neighbourhoods, along with the jailing and torture of activists and critics and mass sackings of those suspected of involvement in protests.
The government has also engaged in an international public relations campaign to cover up its brutality and appear as if reforms are taking place.
Human rights group Bahrain Watch compiled in August a list of 18 Western companies employed by the government to improve its image, with total payments of at least US$32 million. The companies have generally helped the government paint protesters as violent, Iranian-backed theocrats fighting a benevolent government that is working to correct “mistakes” made in the crackdown.
The backing of Western companies is not surprising given Bahrain’s importance to Western imperial interests. It hosts the US navy’s fifth fleet which maintains a constant threat to nearby Iran. Bahrain is also an important financial hub for international capital.
However, thousands of people have defied the government’s ban on unauthorised protests, holding regular rallies against the regime.
As-Safir said on September 11 opposition groups hit back at government hysteria over disruptions in the capital Manama during recent protests, blaming the actions of security forces.
Head of the Al-Wefaq Party Abdul Jalil Khalil said: “The government’s decision to surround Manama with more than 40 security checkpoints, close the streets leading to it and use tear gas and stun grenades in the capital’s alleys are what disrupted traffic and caused economic losses.”
Political analyst Sara Marusek told Press TV on September 10: “The government, basically, is using strategies that are being imported by the United States.
“They’ve taken John Timoney, an NYPD cop, and they’re using the same sort of oppressive, supposedly non-violent strategy that basically hides the violence.”
Adding to Bahrain’s long list of political prisoners, 20 democracy activists had their lengthy jail sentences upheld on September 4 after they were retried in civilian courts. Officially charged with trying to overthrow the government, they were sentenced to between five years and life in prison for their roles in organising protests last year.