Saudi riots reveal society's fissures

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."

Indeed, many Saudis agree. And they saw the Khobar violence as a harbinger of the demographic challenges facing Saudi Arabia. In a country where 38 percent of its 20 million citizens are under 24 years, the government will have to find jobs for this huge youth bulge, as well as provide recreational and entertainment activities.

Not easy in a country dominated by an austere strain of Islam. Saudi Arabia has no movie theaters and limited sports facilities for young men, who can only go to beaches reserved for single men and eat in “singles only” sections of restaurants. As dating is prohibited, most young single men have no opportunity to interact with the opposite sex.

Even innocent partying on the streets to celebrate National Day is taboo for some religious conservatives.

Saudi blogger Eman Al Nafjan described Riyadh on the recent holiday. “The streets were full of guys hanging out of their car windows with flags wrapped around their heads or waving them … Some even stopped their cars at the side of the road, got out and danced!”

But later at a shopping mall, Al Najran noted that the religious police were “all out to squelch celebrations. They caught a bunch of teenage girls and took the flags that the girls had thrown over their abayas.”

Writer Abdullah Al Alami believes that such constrictions on public fun contributed to the Khobar incident. "This terrible event reflects the need to allow more space for the youth in terms of sport clubs, movie theatres and recreation facilities," he told Arab News. There is, he added later in an interview, a “lack of other outlets for these youth.”

Laila M. Bahammam, a writer at Al Yaom newspaper, disputed that notion. “There are plenty of beaches ... there are so many things for youngsters,” she said. “Also, Bahrain is a one-hour drive away, where they can see movies.”

The public flogging drew mixed reviews. Bahammam said most people in Khobar wanted a quick punishment and that “all the parents [of the detained youths] agreed to” the lashings.

Maher Al Bawardi, Al Yaum’s circulation manager, said he would have preferred some type of community service for the looters, all of whom have been released from jail. About 20 of them will face civil claims for damages from shop owners, he said.

Al Bawardi added that floggings hurt more psychologically than physically. Under Islamic law, he explained, the lasher must keep his elbow next to his body to mitigate the force of each blow.
“No blood comes,” Al Bawardi said. “It won’t hurt that much, you won’t die from it. But it’s an insulting punishment. ... It hurts psychologically, so he knows he’s done something wrong.”

The National Society for Human Rights, a Saudi group, issued a statement condemning the looting but objecting to the lack of due process. "The execution of lashing … [before] a lower level court issues a sentence" and all appeals are exhausted is "not coherent" with the country’s basic law, it stated.

Marwan Al Zamil, a junior high student at Dhahran Ahliyaa, a private school, was hanging around outside Pizza Hut one night recently with his friends. He said they all approved of the floggings so that "the bullies" responsible for the rampage "can’t do it again."

His friend, Ahmed Bubshait, agreed: "They should learn a lesson," he said, adding that the flogging would make the perpetrators think twice about doing "anything like that on National Day again."

One of the looted shops, OPTICA, sustained more than $130,000 in damage, according to manager Ata Kanani. The eyeglass store’s entire inventory, including hundreds of designer sunglasses, as well as fax and credit card machines, were stolen.

Kanani turned and showed a visitor a piece of paper in a brown frame, which he said was presented to him by members of a Khobar youth club a few days after the rampage. Across the top under "Apology," it said "on behalf of all Saudis, we deeply condemn the terrible 'or sorrowful' events that you had to witness."

The shop manager was pleased, but he’s taking precautions nonetheless. "Actually, we have to make some shutters," he said. "And have them installed next year, close to National Day."