Police out in force in Saudi, protest in east
RIYADH, March 11 — Police flooded the streets of the Saudi capital today 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.”
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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 per cent 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 today.
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 US 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 US$37 billion (RM112.50 billion) last month when he returned from three months of medical treatment abroad. — Reuters