Police flood Saudi capital ahead of protests

The oil kingpin braces for protests calling for political, economic reforms.

Last Updated: Mar 11, 2011, 18:36 PM IST

Riyadh: Hundreds of police deployed in the Saudi capital on Friday ahead of planned protests calling for democratic reforms as the government tried to prevent the wave of unrest sweeping the Arab world from spreading in the oil-rich kingdom.

Police blocked roads and set up random checkpoints in Riyadh, searching residents around a central mosque as large numbers of people gathering for Friday prayers raised the prospect of them later spilling into the streets for mass demonstrations.

On Thursday, rare violence broke out at another protest in the country`s east when Saudi police opened fire to disperse demonstrators in the city of Qatif, where minority Shiites live. At least three protesters and one police officer were wounded.

Although protests have so far been confined to small rallies in the east, activists have been emboldened by other uprisings in the region that have toppled longtime rulers of Tunisia and Egypt. The Saudi activists have set up online groups calling for protests in Riyadh on Friday.

Any violence at Friday`s planned protests could reverberate through the world`s markets because of the importance of Saudi oil exports.

Discord is common between authorities and the country`s Shiites, who make up 10 percent of the kingdom`s 23 million citizens. The Shiites have long complained of discrimination, saying they are barred from key positions in the military and government and are not given an equal share of the country`s wealth.

The pro-Western monarchy is concerned protests could open footholds for Shiite powerhouse Iran and has accused foreigners of stoking the protests, which are officially forbidden.

Despite the ban on demonstrations and a warning that security forces will act against them, protesters demanding the release of political prisoners took to the streets Thursday for a second day in the eastern city of Qatif. Several hundred protesters, some wearing masks to avoid being identified, marched after dark asking for "Freedom for prisoners."

Police, who were lined up opposite the protesters, fired percussion bombs followed by gunfire, causing the crowd to scatter, a witness said.

Mainly Sunni Saudi Arabia has struggled to stay ahead of the unrest that has led to the ouster of the Egyptian and Tunisian leaders in recent weeks.

Last month, the ultraconservative Saudi government announced an unprecedented economic package worth an estimated $36 billion that will give Saudis interest-free home loans, unemployment assistance and debt forgiveness.

At the same time, it reiterated that demonstrations are forbidden in the kingdom because they contradict Islamic laws and society`s values and said security forces were authorized to act against anyone violating the ban.

So far the demonstrations have been small, concentrated in the east among Shiites demanding the release of detainees. But activists have been emboldened by other uprisings have set up Facebook groups calling for protests in the capital, Riyadh, on Friday to demand democratic reforms.

One such group garnered more than 30,000 supporters. The group called the "Honein Revolution March 11" has listed a number of mosques in 17 Saudi cities for protesters to rally.

The group says it strives to have elected officials in Saudi Arabia, including the ruler.

Bureau Report