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