Planned day of protests key test for Saudi Arabia

RIYADH Fri Mar 11, 2011 6:07am EST

Anti-government protesters shout during a protest at the Bahrain Financial Habour in Manama, March 7, 2011. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

Anti-government protesters shout during a protest at the Bahrain Financial Habour in Manama, March 7, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Hamad I Mohammed

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RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia's capital was quiet on Friday ahead of a planned day of demonstrations that will test whether activists calling online for political reform will succeed in taking their protests to the streets.

A loose coalition of liberals, rights activists, moderate Sunni Islamists and Shi'ite Muslims has called for political reform and a Facebook page calling for demonstrations attracted more than 30,000 supporters, but protests are strictly forbidden in the conservative kingdom.

The government made those views clear late on Thursday, when police dispersed Shi'ite protests in the town of Qatif in the oil-producing Eastern province. Shots were heard from the area where some 200 people were demonstrating.

Dozens of uniformed police patrolled main squares in Riyadh as scores of police cars toured the streets. A helicopter circled above one city mosque and busloads of police were parked nearby, significantly raising the security presence. There was also a heavy police presence in the second city of Jeddah.

If protests take place, they might start up after noon prayers at 1 p.m. (1000 GMT) or after evening prayers around 5 p.m. (1400 GMT)

"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, of the Brookings Center in Doha.

"Even if its 200 or 300 that is still, by Saudi standards, a big deal and something to worry about."

A diplomat in the Gulf region said protests were not expected to evolve into a mass demonstration on Friday and the Saudi government would respond through non-lethal means.

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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 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.

The world's biggest oil exporter has made it clear it does not tolerate any protests or political parties, which it says 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 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 $36 billion last month when he returned from three months of medical treatment abroad.

(Additional reporting by Erika Solomon in Dubai; Writing by Reed Stevenson and Cynthia Johnston; editing by Crispian Balmer and Elizabeth Fullerton)

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