Saudi officials deny reports of fresh protests in Riyadh

Media reports claim dozens of people demonstrating to demand release of jailed relatives
Saudi officials deny reports of fresh protests in Riyadh
Saudi interior minister Prince Nayef. (Getty Images)
By Reuters
Sun 13 Mar 2011 09:24 PM

Dozens of Saudis gathered

outside the interior ministry in Riyadh on Sunday to demand the

release of jailed relatives, activists said, two days after a

planned day of protests fizzled amid a heavy police presence.

Protests are banned in Saudi Arabia and the interior

ministry denied one was taking place. Journalists could not get

close to the heavily guarded ministry but saw dozens of men in

traditional white robes standing there, while dozens of security

forces stood by next to parked buses and police cars.

The men were asking to see Saudi counter-terrorism chief,

Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, to demand the release of prisoners

they say are being held too long without trial, activists said.

"A couple of us came already last week. We were told today

that the prince is not here," said an activist who said he took

part in the gathering and declined to be identified.

A call via social media for a day of anti-government

protests went unheeded on Friday in Riyadh as police stepped up

their presence to enforce a strict ban of demonstrations.

Small protests by minority Shi'ites, who have long

complained of marginalisation, have taken place in the east.

Saudi Arabia, a key US ally, has avoided unrest that

toppled rulers in Egypt and Tunisia and spread to other Gulf

countries, but dissent has built up in the world's top oil

exporter, an absolute monarchy without an elected parliament.

Protests in Riyadh, even small ones, pose a challenge to the

Saudi government as it tries to show the country is unaffected

by protests raging over its borders in Bahrain, Yemen and Oman.

With more than $400 billion in foreign reserves Saudi Arabia

is in a more comfortable position than other Arab countries to

alleviate any social pressures such as high youth unemployment.

Last month, King Abdullah unveiled handouts worth an

estimated $37 billion to ease social pressures.

Saudi Arabia has guaranteed Western energy supplies for

decades, and the calls for protests have put markets on edge.

Pictures circulating on Twitter showed dozens of men dressed

in traditional white robes and red headdresses gathered

peaceably outside the ministry in central Riyadh. They did not

appear to be shouting slogans or holding protest signs.

"There is nothing going on in front of the ministry. I just

left the ministry and there was nothing there," Interior

Ministry spokesman Mansour al-Turki told Reuters.

Activists say two similar though smaller gatherings have

taken place in the past five weeks. The government denies this.

Amnesty International and other human rights activists have

accused Saudi Arabia of having detained a large number of people

without trial in its sweep against al Qaeda, which staged a

campaign inside the kingdom from 2003-06. Riyadh denies this.

Late on Saturday, Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin

Abdul-Aziz, the king's half-brother, said loyal Saudis had

foiled protest plans by "evil people", state media said.

"Some evil people wanted to spread chaos in the kingdom

yesterday and called for demonstrations that have dishonourable

goals," said the veteran security chief, whose ministry warned

last week that protests were un-Islamic and illegal.

The Saudi royal family dominate government in the country.

Senior princes occupy key government posts, political parties

and protests are banned, and the country has an advisory

parliamentary body whose members are appointed by the king.

Sunni Muslim religious scholars, who have wide powers,

uphold absolute obedience to the ruler.

The Eastern Province, where most Saudi oil fields are, was

the only region that saw protests on Friday -- the latest in a

series of demonstrations there in recent weeks. What they are

demanding mostly is the release of prisoners held for years

without trial.

Two protesters and one policeman were injured as police

fired in the air after shots were fired by a group of Shi'ite

protesters on March 10, according to the interior ministry.

Weeks of protests by majority Shi'ites in neighbouring

Bahrain have inspired their Saudi peers.

On Sunday, the government unveiled plans to create more jobs

in a less-developed region near the border with Yemen, Iraq and

Jordan.

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