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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?

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."