Media reports claim dozens of people demonstrating to demand release of jailed relatives
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
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