Gulf leaders hear rumblings of dissent

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – There were only a few dozen Saudi women at a protest to demand the release of prisoners they claim are unfairly linked to militants. The failure to draw crowds at planned rallies in Syria last week also underscores that the protest fire from Tunisia and Egypt apparently can be stamped out by hard-line state security, which is also a hallmark of Gulf states.

But there's no shortage of hints that reform-seeking groups in the Gulf are trying to seize the moment.

The rare protest rally on Saturday in Saudi's capital came a week after Saudi activists launched a Facebook page demanding more jobs and political accountability in the world's biggest oil exporter. Calls on social media sites also have gone out for protests next week in Bahrain and next month in Kuwait — the two Gulf nations with the most active and organized political opposition.

"There will be pressures coming to the Gulf for reforms on things like corruption, abuses of power and a greater voice for civil society," said Mustafa Alani, a regional analyst at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai. Some of the Gulf dynasties stretch back to the region's hardscrabble past before oil was king. Others have advisory groups with limited clout such as the UAE and Qatar — whose state-founded Al-Jazeera network has been accused by some Arab leaders of fomenting protests with its blanket coverage of Tunisia and Egypt.

"This is the Achilles' heel of the Gulf," said Christopher Davidson, a Gulf expert at the University of Durham in Britain. A Kuwaiti group calling itself Fifth Fence is using Twitter messages for calls to rise up against "undemocratic practices" by the government, which has been under increasing pressure from opposition lawmakers over allegations of fiscal abuse and attempts to roll back political freedoms.
On Sunday, Kuwait's rulers accepted the resignation of the scandal-battered interior minister in an apparent attempt to undercut the protest plans. The tiny island kingdom has been the most volatile in the Gulf. Majority Shiites have long alleged discrimination and other abuses by Sunni rulers. "The Gulf states are not that far removed from what has happened in Tunisia and Egypt," said Ali Fakhro, a political analyst and commentator in Bahrain. "Why? Because all Arab youth have similar demands: jobs, freedom, a feeling they are not oppressed by their leaders. Last month, the New York-based group Human Rights Watch accused Gulf states of stepping up pressure on political activists, including blocking blogs and web forums.

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