Saudi authorities detained dozens of demonstrators on Friday in Jeddah who gathered to protest against poor infrastructure after deadly floods swept through Saudi Arabia’s second biggest city, police and witnesses said.
Some Jeddah streets remained submerged on Friday and electricity was still out in low-lying parts of the city two days after torrential rains caused flooding that killed at least four people and swept away cars.
The protest came after mass messages sent over BlackBerry smartphones called for popular action in response to the flood, an unusual move in the Gulf Arab state at a time of spreading anti-government unrest across the Arab world.
Protesters gathered for about 15 minutes after Friday prayers on a main Jeddah shopping street and shouted 'God is Greatest' before authorities broke up the protest and detained participants, a witness who works in a nearby shop told Reuters.
One police officer said around 30 protesters were detained and police were pursuing others who fled to a nearby building. Another officer put the number held at around 50.
"They took them all. They were protesting. There were about 30 people. There are still some people hiding in that building over there. The police are looking for them and trying to arrest them," a police officer at a station near the protest said.
About 12 police cars surrounded the building where protesters were hiding and 30 more blocked off the street near where the protest happened.
A mass message sent via BlackBerry Messenger on Thursday urged Jeddah residents to join a demonstration on Saturday over the floods, while another urged all government and private sector employees to hold a general strike next week. But Friday’s protest had been unexpected.
"No work for the full week until they find a solution to the roads of Jeddah," the message said. It was not known who sent the messages.
The call for action in the top oil exporter comes as open defiance of authoritarian rulers spreads, with protests in Egypt and Yemen inspired by unrest which toppled Tunisia's president this month.
The government has said it will give all assistance to victims of floods. On Wednesday, King Abdullah, who is resting in Morocco after back operations in New York, ordered rescue operations to be stepped up, warning officials not to delay his orders, state media said.
The last time the port city was flooded, in 2009, 120 people were killed, triggering rare debate about management of public funds and infrastructure defects in one of the world's richest countries and an investigation into the problems.
Jeddah residents said the floods were four metres deep in some places in the Red Sea port of four million inhabitants, and some reported being stranded for hours when waters rose.