March 10, 2011 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 674

In Anticipation of the Saudi Day of Rage on Friday March 11, 2011

March 10, 2011 | By Y. Yehoshua and Y. Admon*
Saudi Arabia | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 674


The wave of uprisings sweeping the Arab world has now reached Saudi Arabia. For several weeks, various elements in the kingdom have been preparing for a day of demonstrations against the regime, set for March 11, 2011, which they are calling the "Hunain Revolution."[1] These preparations have been characterized by several unique features. Firstly, although massive organization for the demonstrations was clearly evident on various websites and social networks, the Saudi media ignored the issue completely until a mere two days prior to the date scheduled for the demonstrations. Al-Jazeera TV, which gave supportive coverage of the demonstrations in almost every Arab state, has yet to report on the preparations for the Saudi demonstrations. Secondly, the organizers themselves comprise a diverse cross-section of Saudi society, including Sunnis and Shi'ites, reformists and Islamists, and oppositionists both within Saudi Arabia and abroad. It should be noted, however, that secular, liberal, and pro-Western voices have been almost entirely absent from those calling for the demonstrations.

The protestors have not only voiced demands for domestic reform in terms of the nature of the Saudi regime, improvement of socioeconomic conditions in the kingdom, the release of political prisoners, and the expansion of liberties, but also criticism of Saudi Arabia's foreign policy and of Western influence on the kingdom.

The regime's response to the protestors included an explicit and resolute declaration banning demonstrations across the country, and asserting that the security apparatuses would use an iron fist to prevent them. In the days leading up to the demonstrations, prominent spokesmen from the regime and the government media launched an official and propaganda campaign in an attempt to dissuade protestors from taking to the streets. The spokesmen claimed that the demonstrations were an external plot aimed at undermining Saudi unity, with Saudi Foreign Minister Sa'ud Al-Faisal even indirectly implicating Iran. At the same time, however, King 'Abdallah announced the implementation of a series of reforms in numerous areas, at a cost of tens of billions of dollars.

It should be noted that alongside the broad preparations for the demonstrations, there was also a far-reaching campaign on online social networks against the protestors and in support of the regime.

Following is an overview of the preparations in advance of the demonstrations:

Calls for Demonstrations on Friday, March 11

The wave of popular uprisings in the region has reached Saudi Arabia. Saudi oppositionists are planning large-scale demonstrations across the country tomorrow, Friday, March 11, 2011, as part of what they call the "Hunain Revolution." Due to blanket censorship, the calls for protests were not publicized in the Saudi media until March 9, two days before the protests. Until that point, they were spread only via the Internet, on opposition websites, forums, and YouTube, and on the social network sites Facebook and Twitter.

Several Facebook pages have been launched in preparation for the Friday events, with titles like "The March 11 Hunain Revolution in Saudi Arabia,"[2] "The March 11 Hunain Revolution – Plan of Action,"[3] and "The Free Youth Coalition."[4] These pages, which have a combined total of tens of thousands of fans, call on the public to take to the streets with the aim of "overthrowing the regime." A page belonging to the "Free Youth Coalition" features a section titled "What Do We Want?" that details the protesters' demands, which include: a leader and Shura Council elected by the people; an independent judiciary; the abolition of the Political Security Apparatus and the establishment of security apparatuses that serve the people; the release of political prisoners and human rights activists; freedom of expression and organization; concern for society's weak sectors; the establishment of a minimum wage of 10,000 riyals; a program for combating unemployment and corruption; and a foreign policy that matches national interests. The protesters also demanded that the government upgrade and strengthen the Saudi military, improve the status of the clerics and transform them into an independent social force, and protect Saudi women from campaigns of Westernization.[5]

Facebook page titled "The March 11 Hunain Revolution in Saudi Arabia"[6]

The "Free Youth Coalition" Facebook page featured detailed instructions regarding the demonstration, which they asked readers to circulate among the public. For example, it listed the locations of demonstrations planned for 18 different towns, and instructed the protesters to refrain from violence and vandalism, remain in the square until the demands are met, prepare signs and leaflets detailing the demands, chant slogans clearly and in unison, move as a group so as to avoid being dispersed, and resist attempts to arrest protesters.[7]

Facebook page of the "Free Youth Coalition"[8]

One of the prominent activists calling for protests is Sunni Sheikh Muhammad Al-Wad'ani, imam of the Al-Rajihi Mosque in Riyadh, who recently posted a video on YouTube calling for nonviolent protests in the public squares of Riyadh under the slogan "Down with the Monarchy." In the video, he said that "the best jihad is jihad for the overthrow of an oppressive tyrant," and urged his viewers to spread word of the protests via Facebook and YouTube. He criticized the dynastic Saudi monarchy and its indifference to the demands of the public, saying, "There is no point in talking to the oppressor, for it has been proven that he has no desire to help." Al-Wad'ani concluded that non-violent protest by the public was "the only way to bring about change and establish justice." He also called for the release of political prisoners and detainees being held without trial.[9]

Al-Wad'ani was arrested on March 4, 2011 while participating in a protest in front of his mosque calling to overthrow the monarchy. His fate is unknown, but according to rumors spread on the Internet, he was hospitalized following a severe beating during which he lost consciousness.[10] Following his arrest, a Facebook page called "We Are All Muhammad Wad'ani" was launched, modeled on the Facebook page "We Are All Khaled Sa'id" – the most popular Facebook page among the youth of the Egyptian revolution; Sai'd, 28, was killed in June 2010 as a result of police activity in Alexandria.

Facebook page titled "We Are All Muhammad Al-Wad'ani"[11]

Facebook page titled "We Are All Muhammad Al-Wad'ani" with map showing locations of demonstrations

Sheikh Khaled Al-Majed, a professor at the Shari'a Law School of the Imam Muhammad bin Sa'ud University in Riyadh, was also among those calling for protests who were arrested by the regime. Al-Majed published a scathing criticism of the Saudi regime titled "What Will Happen If the Saudi People Wish To Topple the Regime?" In his article, Al-Majed claimed that a Saudi revolution after the model of Egypt and Tunisia was unavoidable, especially considering the fact that many Saudi citizens live below the poverty line, while government officials enjoy an affluent lifestyle, are guaranteed top posts, and are exempt from paying taxes. Al-Majed also criticized the continued incarceration of thousands of Saudi prisoners without trial, and accused the regime of depriving the people of their civil rights.[12] Al-Majed was arrested two days after the publication of his article.[13]

Support for the protest has also come from the Islamic Nation Party, a new self-proclaimed political party in Saudi Arabia, established on February 9, 2011 despite the ban on such parties in the kingdom. Its founders, most of whom were arrested in the week following its establishment, challenged the royal family's exclusive rule, called for including the people in the election of its representatives and in holding the latter accountable, and demanded assurance of civil rights and the release of political prisoners.[14] Businessman Sheikh Muhammad bin Sa'd Muhammad Aal Mufrih, the only founding member of the group who has not been arrested, posted a video in which he expressed support for the March 11 protests and condemned the Interior Ministry's threats and suppression of protest supporters, and the support for the protest ban by the senior ulamaa.[15]

Saudi Clerics Call for Change

Against the backdrop of the recent events in the Middle East, numerous calls for change have been voiced in Saudi Arabia – some demanding more democratization and others more Islamization – most prominently by Saudi sheikhs. For example, Sheikhs Salman Al-'Odah[16] and Sa'ud Al-Funaysan called for reform in matters such as Shura Council elections, separation of the royal family from the executive branch, and freedom of expression. In contrast, Wahhabi sheikhs such as Muhammad bin 'Abdallah Al-Habadan, who is associated with Sheikh 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Barrak, called for stricter enforcement of Islamic law, including bans on students traveling abroad and shutting down television channels such as MBC TV. He defined such actions as "Islamic reform."

In a communiqué posted to in February 2011, more than 2,000 Saudi Sunni and Shi'ite intellectuals and preachers called for extensive reforms in the country while preserving the monarchy. Among the communiqué's signatories were Sheikhs Salman Al-'Odah and Sa'ud Al-Funaysan and Shi'ite oppositionist Ja'far Al-Shayeb.

The communiqué, addressed to King 'Abdallah, stated: "[There is] an urgent need in [Saudi Arabia] to implement fundamental, serious, and swift reform – reform that will strengthen the homeland's unity, defend its achievements, and ensure its safety and security." The communiqué went on to delineate the specific areas in which reform was needed:

  1. Appointment of all Shura Council members by election; granting the Shura Council authority to pass legislation and to oversee the executive branch of government, including oversight of the allocation of public funds; granting the Shura Council authority to enforce accountability for the prime minister and his cabinet.
  2. Separation of the premiership from the royal court, providing that the prime minister and his cabinet are appointed by the king, with a vote of confidence by the Shura Council.
  3. Reforming, developing, and granting independence to the legal system, and expanding the number of judges in accordance with population size and caseload.
  4. Fighting financial and administrative corruption.
  5. Fighting unemployment and providing a prompt solution to youth and housing problems.
  6. Encouraging the establishment of civil society institutions and professional associations.
  7. Granting freedom of expression and easing publication restrictions.
  8. Releasing political prisoners arrested for expressing opinions counter to those of the regime, prisoners who have completed their sentences, and prisoners against whom no public charges have been brought; implementing the three "justice statutes," which define the rights of criminal suspects.

The signatories concluded with the following message: "We stress our devotion to the unity of this homeland and to the defense of its existence, security, and achievements. We condemn violence and the undermining of security, and we are committed to peaceful means of expression."[17]

Although it called for change within the framework of the regime rather than the removal of the regime, the communiqué can nonetheless be interpreted as support for the demands of the Saudi protestors. Moreover, Sheikh Sa'ud Al-Funaysan even ruled that demonstrating was permissible – in contrast to a fatwa issued by the regime-affiliated Saudi Senior Clerics Council. He said that "nonviolent demonstrations that do not involve weapons or bloodshed" were permissible according to Islamic law. He did, however, stipulate that the protestors' demands must be legitimate and just; must not lead to anything equally as evil, or even more evil, than what they sought to change; must not prevent the fulfillment of religious duties such as Friday prayers; must not involve the mixing of genders; and must not lead to harm to persons or property.[18]

While Sheikh Salman Al-'Odah did not openly voice support for the demonstrations in Saudi Arabia, he did express support for the demonstrations in Egypt. He wrote via Twitter: "Nonviolent demonstrations are a means that is anchored in the constitutions of the democratic states and are the legitimate right of the citizen. The shari'a does not forbid them unless they cause open corruption."[19]

Support of the protests in Egypt on Salman Al-'Odah's Twitter account

In contrast, the homepage of – a website launched by a group of clerics, including the extremist Sheikh 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Barrak, and administered by Al-Barrak associate Muhammad Bin 'Abdallah Al-Habadan, imam of the Al'iz Bin 'Abd Al-Salam Mosque in Riyadh – posted an old petition, drafted in 2005 by intellectuals and clerics and addressed to Saudi Arabia's King 'Abdallah, demanding what they called "Islamic reform" in various realms of state affairs and emphasizing that "Islamic law is the sole source of authority for legislation and reform."[20]

Al-Habadan likewise posted an article of his own to the website, titled "What Reforms Do We Want?" and addressed to King 'Abdallah. In the article, he called for "religious reforms," which included demands "to amend any law that violates Islamic law"; to reform the media so that they will be shari'a-compliant; to shut down television channels imposing Westernization on the country, such as MBC TV; to prohibit students from traveling abroad, to generally restrict such travel, and even to force those now abroad to return; and to restore the former authority of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (i.e. the religious police) in matters such as arrests and investigations. Al-Hadaban also called on the king to implement other reforms, such as releasing clerics imprisoned for security reasons if their involvement in sabotage activities is unproven, providing government supplementation for low incomes, and abolishing various taxes.[21]

Sunnis and Shi'ites Protest Side by Side

The organization of the protests seems to be a joint Sunni-Shi'ite venture. The demonstrations planned for March 11 are set to begin simultaneously in a number of cities with combined Sunni and Shi'ite populations – as was the case with the demonstrations a week previously, on March 4 in Riyadh, Al-Qatif, and Hofuf. The organizers announced that one of the slogans of the Saudi revolution was to be "Not Sunni and Not Shi'ite; No Sectarian Fitna; Our Revolution Is a National Revolution."[22]

Various Facebook pages likewise contain reports from both Sunni and Shi'ite sources, such as the Shi'ite website and the Iranian Arabic-language Al-Alam TV.[23] One protest supporter, Muhammad Al-Mas'ari, a London-based Sunni Saudi oppositionist who heads the Al-Tajdid Al-Islami organization, said in an interview on Al-Alam TV that the fatwa prohibiting protests was "worthless" and that the regime was trying to incite sectarian civil war among protesters throughout the country, in order to divide and weaken them.[24]

A number of prominent Shi'ite clerics likewise voiced demands for reform in Saudi Arabia. Sheikh Tawfiq Al-'Amer called for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy that would separate the three branches of government and allow political parties. It should be noted that following these statements, Al-'Amer was arrested by Saudi authorities, and released a few days later.[25] Similarly, Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr, known for his criticism of the Saudi regime, called for the Arab states to implement policy reforms and to grant their citizens political freedoms,[26] while Sheikh Hussein Bukhamseen called for citizens to be granted political, religious, social, and ideological freedoms, in accordance with international and Islamic agreements and pacts.[27]

Over the past month, there have been a number of demonstrations in various Shi'ite centers, and several protestors were arrested. On February 17, 2011, about 100 Shi'ites participated in a march in the eastern Saudi city of Al-Qatif, calling for the release of Shi'ite prisoners being held without trial in Saudi prisons since 2009 for allegedly participating in a demonstration in the city to oppose government harassment of Shi'ite citizens in Al-Madina.[28] On February 24, similar marches took place in Al-Qatif and another eastern city, Safwa, to demand the release of nine Shi'ite prisoners being held in without trial in Saudi prisons for 15 years on suspicion of involvement in the June 1996 bombing of a U.S. military base in Al-Khobar. According to reports, the marches lasted under an hour and did not involve clashes with security forces.[29] On March 4, further Shi'ite marches took place in Al-Qatif and Hofuf, to demand the release of all other Shi'ite prisoners in Saudi prisons, especially Sheikh Tawfiq Al-'Amer.[30]

In light of Shi'ite involvement in anti-regime protests in the country, and Shi'ite statements in the Iranian press questioning the legitimacy of King 'Abdallah's regime and supporting the uprising in Bahrain, Saudi regime supporters claimed that the planned March 11 protests are an Iranian plot aimed at harming Saudi Arabia, as intimated by Saudi Foreign Minister Sa'ud Al-Faisal.[31]

In Anticipation of March 11 Protests, Saudi Regime Renews Ban on Demonstrations, Conducts Preemptive Arrests, Threatens to Prevent Demonstrations with Iron Fist

In light of the calls for demonstrations on March 11, and following the protests over the past month in various parts of the country – which were nevertheless limited in scale, such as the Shi'ite demonstrations in eastern Saudi Arabia and the demonstration in Riyadh on March 4 – the Saudi Interior Ministry has renewed its countrywide ban on all demonstrations and calls for demonstrations. In a March 6 statement the ministry announced "a total ban on demonstrations and processions of any kind and on calls to hold them," on the grounds that such demonstrations "contravene the principles of Islamic law [and] the values and norms of Saudi society; undermine public order and harm public and private interests; deprive others of their rights; and are likely to lead to anarchy..." A ministry spokesman added that the security forces had been instructed to use all necessary measures against anyone attempting to harm the regime in any way.[32]

The Shi'ite website reported that Saudi security forces are operating at the level of an undeclared emergency, and that authorities are on high alert in advance of the March 11 demonstrations.[33] Furthermore, several websites reported on the iron-fist policy employed by the authorities against the protest organizers. In addition to reports on the arrest and beating of Sheikh Muhammad Al-Wad'ani, it was reported that Faisal Al-'Omar, the 27-year-old Sunni activist who launched the Hunain Revolution Facebook page, was murdered by "an unidentified security force." Al-'Omar has even been proclaimed by some websites as "the first martyr of the Hunain Revolution."[34] Likewise, many activists have been arrested, including the Sunni founders of the Islamic Nation Party, Shi'ite Sheikh Tawfiq Al-'Amer, and various Shi'ite demonstrators.[35]

The Interior Ministry's countrywide ban on demonstrations won support from both the Saudi religious establishment and the Shura Council. A fatwa issued by the Saudi Senior Clerics Council, headed by Saudi Mufti Sheikh 'Abd Al-'Aziz bin 'Abdallah Aal Al-Sheikh, said that "reform and advice in Saudi Arabia need not be [achieved] through demonstrations and methods that arouse civil strife and schism." Therefore, the fatwa said, the council wished to "stress that demonstrations in this country are forbidden, and that the means permitted by Islamic law to ensure [public] welfare without causing any form of corruption is consultation."

The fatwa also emphasized that Saudi Arabia was intent on safeguarding its Islamic identity, and that "in Allah's mercy, the citizens of this land are united around their ruler, guided by the Koran and the Sunna. He does not divide them or scatter them into factions imported [from abroad] or parties established for various reasons... [Saudi Arabia] will never accept ideologies imported from the West or the East that will harm [its Islamic] identity or cause division." The fatwa also stated that "protecting the [unity of] the group is an important principle of Islam, which is rooted in the Koran and the Sunna of the Prophet." The fatwa cited one of Muhammad's hadiths, which said: "He who wishes to break up this ummah, which is one group, strike him with the sword, no matter who he may be."[36]

Other sheikhs also expressed support for the ban on demonstrations. Sheikh Nasser Al-'Omar, who oversees, said that demonstrations in Saudi Arabia were "forbidden because they would benefit the Shi'ites, secularists, and hypocrites, destroy the country, and pave the way for international intervention."[37] Likewise, in an interview for Saudi Al-Majd TV, prominent Saudi preacher Sheikh S'ad Al-Breik said that ensuring Saudi Arabia's security was of primary concern, and that therefore "we will be content with splitting the skulls of anyone who undermines security, as the Prophet said: 'He who comes upon you and incites fitna [civil strife] while you are united in your support [of your leader], kill him."[38] Similarly, several days before the planned protests, Sheikh 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Barrak, who was once a fierce critic of King 'Abdallah, and whose website includes a call for reforms in the kingdom, said that "rebellion against a Muslim ruler is forbidden."[39]

The Shura Council also expressed support for the ban. Its chairman, Dr. 'Abdallah Bin Muhammad Aal Al-Sheikh, said that the security of the kingdom must be ensured, and that the calls to protest and organize processions should be ignored, since they went against Islamic law.[40]

Two days prior to the planned demonstrations, Saudi officials spoke out against the protests and emphasized that the state will wield an iron fist against the protestors. Saudi Foreign Minister Sa'ud Al-Faisal arranged a press conference in which he said that "every finger waved in Saudi Arabia's face will be cut off," and that Saudi Arabia "opposes condemnation and admonition from those who are dissatisfied with the regime." When asked whether Iran was responsible for inciting the strife within Saudi Arabia, Al-Faisal replied: "We hope that Iran will deal with its own demonstrations. We do not have demonstrations like those in Iran. We oppose intervention in our domestic affairs by anyone – small or large – and we will maintain this policy. The moment we identify an instance of intervention, we will quash it." He also said: "The best way to realize the will of the citizen is through dialogue... The citizens of the country will [effect] change, rather than external [elements]." Al-Faisal pointed that King 'Abdallah had met the previous day with Shi'ite representatives, and emphasized the king's encouragement of national discourse.[41]

The following day, Emir Turki Al-Faisal, former Saudi intelligence chief and also former Saudi ambassador to the U.K. and the U.S., published an article praising Saudi Arabia, titled "My Homeland," in the London Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat. It read in part: "O my homeland, you raise my head and bring me to say in your name to those who spread rumors and lies: Please, spread your rumors and lies; the dogs bark but the caravan passes on. Yes, my homeland, they have forgotten what a natural treasure you are and how strong your foundations are."

Al-Faisal went on to list the Saudi regime's achievements over the years, both domestically and internationally. He concluded his article by addressing the Saudi homeland as follows: "If there are those among your sons who wish for civil strife, riots, extinction, and the spreading of dissension, Allah will punish them for their intentions. For this reason you have institutions of Islamic law and security that will deal with the [evil] they are trying to inflict upon you."[42]

Saudi Regime Announces Reforms

It should be noted that in response to the wave of demonstrations in the Arab world, and even prior to King 'Abdallah's February 23 return home from medical treatment in the U.S., the Saudi authorities had announced their willingness to speak with the people and to implement changes and reforms in the country. In an unprecedented move, Shura Council Chairman Dr. 'Abdallah Aal Al-Sheikh met on February 21 with 15 citizens of various ages to hear their requests. He also announced that the Shura Council had created a special administration for maintaining contact with the public and hearing its demands.[43] Khaled Al-Tuwaijri, chairman of the king's office, launched a Facebook page providing his email address and phone number for anyone wishing to contact him.[44] In advance of the king's return, Riyadh governor Prince Salman bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz ordered more food and clothing distributed to needy families.[45]

Upon his return to the kingdom, King 'Abdallah issued 13 royal decrees aimed at improving conditions for the citizens, at a total cost of tens of billions of dollars. The decrees covered developing social services; combating unemployment; promoting the establishment of academic and professional training programs for women; advancing science, culture, and sports; supporting government housing and land projects; providing aid to students studying essential professions abroad; granting amnesty to political prisoners; and increasing the wages of clerks in the government, military and private sectors.[46]

The initiatives for dialogue and reform also included the Shi'ite population; the king recently met with Shi'ite clerics and residents from Al-Qatif.[47] Earlier, authorities released a number of Shi'ite prisoners held without trial since 2009.[48] They also allowed Shi'ites to reopen a number of Shi'ite mosques in Khobar that had been closed since 2008.[49]

Facebook Pages Opposing Protests, Supporting the Kingdom

Also launched were several Facebook pages voicing opposition to the planned Day of Rage and support for the Saudi regime; these included "United against the Hunain Revolution,"[50] which has tens of thousands of fans, and "The Homeland Unites against the Hunain Revolution."[51] It is reasonable to assume that some of these pages were launched by bodies associated with the regime.

Facebook page titled "Together in Stopping the Hunain Revolution – March 11, Saudi Arabia"[52]

Facebook page titled "Together against the Hunain Revolution"[53]

*Y. Yehoshua is Director of Research at MEMRI. Y. Admon is a Research Fellow at MEMRI

[1] Probably refers to the Battle of Hunain in 630 AD. At the end of the battle, some fighters criticized how the Prophet Muhammad divided the spoils, but were eventually satisfied by Muhammad's response.

[12], February 21, 2011.

[14], February 7, 2011;, February 10, 2011.

[16] In the 1990s, Al-'Odah was incarcerated in a Saudi prison over his objections to the U.S. military presence in the Gulf.

[17] February 5, 2011;

[18], March 1, 2011.

[20] Front page of The website also provided a link to a Facebook page launched in support of the petition:

[21], February 25, 2011.

[22] This slogan was previously used in protests in the Shi'te city of Al-Qatif.

[24], March 9, 2011.

[25], February 27, 2011, February 28, 2011, March 5, 2011.

[26], February 26, 2011.

[27], February 27, 2011.

[28], February 20, 2011.

[29], February 25, 2011.

[30], March 5, 2011.

[32] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), March 5, 2011.

[33] March 9, 2011.

[35] March 5, 2011.

[36] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), March 7, 2011. During his Friday sermon on March 4, 2011, during the Egyptian revolution, the mufti criticized the protests and called them "premeditated demonstrations" intended on damage the Muslim nation. Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), February 5, 2011.

[37], February 21, 2011.

[38], March 8, 2011.

[39] Al-Wiam (Saudi Arabia), March 8, 2011.

[40] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), March 8, 2011.

[41] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 10, 2011.

[42] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 10, 2011.

[43] Al-Hayat (Saudi Arabia), February 22, 2011.

[44] Al-Hayat (Saudi Arabia), February 17, 2011.

[45] Al-Jazirah (Saudi Arabia), February 20, 2011.

[46] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 24, 2011.

[47] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 9, 2011.

[48], February 20, 2011.

[49], February 28, 2011.

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