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Fri 11 Mar 2011 08:22 AM

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Police flood streets of Riyadh to quell planned protests

Saudi security out in force in Saudi capital as small demos are reported in east of kingdom

Police flood streets of Riyadh to quell planned protests
Police fired over crowds to disperse protesters as activists gear up for a Day of Rage

Police flooded the streets of

the Saudi capital on Friday looking to deter a planned day of

demonstrations and small protests were reported in the east of

the oil-rich country that has been rattled by pan-Arab unrest.

A loose coalition of liberals, rights activists, moderate

Sunni Islamists and Shi'ite Muslims has urged political reform

and a Facebook page calling for demonstrations has attracted

more than 30,000 supporters in the conservative kingdom.

However, protests are strictly forbidden in Saudi Arabia,

and scores of uniformed police patrolled the main squares in

Riyadh, with helicopters buzzing overhead, significantly raising

the security presence ahead of Friday prayers.

Two activists said more than 200 protesters had rallied in

the city of Hofuf, which is close to the eastern Ghawar oil

field and major refinery installations.

The city has seen scattered protests in the last two weeks

by minority Shi'ites, who complain of discrimination in the face

of the country's dominant Sunni majority.

Saudi Arabia is the world's top oil exporter, a major US

ally which has guaranteed Western energy supplies for decades,

and the calls for protests have put markets on edge.

"The fact the Saudi regime is making a big deal of this

suggests that it may be a big deal ... If the first kind of

explicitly pro-democracy protests happen (on Friday) that sets a

precedent and we'll probably see more pro-democracy protests,"

said Shadi Hamid, an analyst with the Brookings Centre in Doha.

"Even if it's 200 or 300 that is still, by Saudi standards,

a big deal and something to worry about."

Riyadh is closely watching the outcome of protests elsewhere

in the Gulf, especially in Bahrain where a disgruntled Shi'ite

majority is seeking an elected government. Saudi Arabia, where

Shi'ites make up about 15 percent of the population, fears

sustained unrest there could embolden its own Shi'ite minority.

Protests were also planned across the Arabian Peninsula

including in Yemen, Kuwait and Bahrain on Friday.

The time after Friday prayers has proved to be crucial in

popular uprisings that have brought down Tunisian and Egyptian

rulers who once seemed invulnerable.

Saudi authorities have made it clear they will not tolerate

any protests or political parties, which they say are

unnecessary in an Islamic state applying Islamic law.

Activists in Saudi Arabia are not seeking the downfall of

the king but want political reform and economic opportunities.

"Saudi young men and women aren't just frustrated, they are

miserably in despair. Everyone I have talked with here is

complaining," Saudi blogger Murtadha Almtawaah wrote.

"They complain about the bad infrastructure of the cities

and the roads, the absence of civil society and freedom, the bad

education system, women's rights and finally the corruption."

Human Rights First called on the government to use restraint

in dealing with any protests. "We ask that all police forces be

kept away from the streets or be completely neutralized," the

Saudi-based group said.

A note by political risk analysts at Eurasia Group said

that, unlike unrest that has rocked other Arab leaders' rule,

Saudi protests were less of a threat to the kingdom's stability.

"They are appealing to the king, not demanding his

departure. Thus, while there may be some unrest ... it will not

threaten al Saud in the short term - but things could get

complicated if Saudi security forces overreact."

Saudi Arabia is home to Islam's holiest sites and a

long-time U.S. ally which has ensured oil supplies for the West.

In a sign that Riyadh was keen to address brewing

discontent, ruler King Abdullah unveiled benefits for Saudis

worth about $37 billion last month when he returned from three

months of medical treatment abroad.

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