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Saudi riots reveal society's fissures

Did restrictions on public fun lead scores of young men to steal and loot in Khobar?

Saudi police ready a square for public floggings in the Saudi city of Khobar, Sept. 28, 2009. Saudi Arabia flogged a group of teenagers after a rare riot in the eastern region of the Islamic kingdom in which shops and restaurants were ransacked. (Zaki Ghawass/Reuters)

KHOBAR, Saudi Arabia — Within a week, two events on the manicured corniche of this seaside town set tongues wagging and heads shaking while Saudis sought explanations.

The riot came first.

Al Khobar’s double-lane, palm-fringed corniche was packed with families celebrating National Day on Sept. 23. The crowd was especially large this year because the holiday fell amid Eid vacation at the end of Ramadan. Music blared from cars, fireworks lit the sky. The humid air was full of energy.

Suddenly, scores of young men began smashing windows and breaking into the stylish shops nearby. They trashed inventories of sunglasses, crystal glass, clothes and ice cream. They stole cash from the tills, overturned furniture, ran off with copying machines. In all, about 30 shops and restaurants were badly vandalized before police arrived and managed to arrest about 80 of the looters.

The rare outbreak of hooliganism stunned Saudis.

“I cannot call actions such as looting, breaking glass and terrifying innocent shop keepers any less than juvenile and barbaric,” said Ali Batarfi, a youth counselor who witnessed the mayhem.

Khobar is a major city in the Eastern Province, where much of the kingdom’s oil riches are located. The province is also home to most of the country’s Shiite minority, although Shiite community leaders said no Shiites were among the arrested rioters.

The second event on the corniche took place five days later when about 20 of the not-yet-convicted perpetrators were each given 30 lashes in public. About a dozen were flogged in Khobar and the rest in Dammam, a 20-minute ride away, according to Saudi newspapers.

The lashings were ordered by the Eastern Province’s vice-governor Prince Jalawi bin Abdul Aziz bin Mossaed, the papers stated. Police officials told reporters that all the flogged youths, including four under age 18, had confessed to participating in the rampage.

No one has come up with definitive explanation for why the apparently spontaneous violence erupted. Some Khobar residents say the men got “carried away” by the celebrations.

Although some vandals were heard to cite U.S. support for Israel as a reason for attacking Pizza Hut and Starbucks, anti-Americanism does not appear to have been a motive.

Mutlaq Al-Anazi, managing editor of Al-Yaum newspaper, told the Arab News: “This has never happened here before. The Eastern Province is a quiet place. Our youngsters have always been known for their good behavior. Therefore, this is alarming. We have had street brawls before — especially after soccer matches, but ... this was pretty violent and calls for a thorough investigation.”

Student Abdullah Thafir Al Amri, 20, was caught up in the police sweep as he bought take-out food in a restaurant. Released days later, he told his family that most of “the actual perpetrators” were from Riyadh and had come to Khobar for vacation because of its “more free atmosphere,” according to Al Amri’s sister, Hajar.

Hajar, who declined to give her full name, said that the violence was unplanned. "As you know," she added, "the youth here have little space to express themselves, so they take every chance they have, which usually comes during public celebrations, and some abuse it."