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JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - Democracy activists in Saudi Arabia say the government is closely monitoring social media to nip in the bud any protests inspired by uprisings that swept Arab countries, toppling leaders in Egypt and Tunisia.
Activists have set up Facebook pages calling for protests on March 11 and 20, with over 17,000 supporters combined, but police managed to stymie two attempts to stage protests in the Red Sea city of Jeddah last month, highlighting the difficulties of such mobilization in the conservative kingdom.
In one case around 30 to 50 people were detained by police when they gathered on the street, eyewitnesses said. In the second, security forces flooded the location of a protest that had been advertised on Facebook, scaring protesters away.
"They are watching closely what people are saying on Facebook and Twitter," said Saudi blogger Ahmed al-Omran. "Obviously they are anxious as they are surrounded with unrest and want to make sure we don't catch the bug."
Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil producer, bans public protests and political parties. In 2004 Saudi security forces, carrying batons and shields thwarted protests in Riyadh and Jeddah called for by a Saudi dissident group in London.
Last week King Abdullah, a close U.S. ally, ordered wage rises for Saudi citizens along with other benefits on his return from three months abroad for medical treatment.
The handouts, valued at $37 billion, were an apparent bid to insulate the kingdom from the wave of protests hitting Arab countries, but activists want more than money.
There has been no sign that the kingdom will introduce elections to its advisory Shura Assembly, a quasi-parliament, or a new round of municipal council elections.
"They have been monitoring the Internet, Facebook and other sites for some time but now it demands more attention," said Mai Yamani, a Saudi analyst based in London. "Saudis are no different from their brothers and sisters in the region -- they are educated, connected and angry," she added.
It is difficult to estimate how many Saudis could be prepared to stage protests.
There are three main population centers in the vast Arabian peninsula state where protests could emerge: Riyadh with a population of over 4 million, Jeddah with a population of over 2 million and the Shi'ite Muslim areas of the Eastern Province.
Shi'ites, who have long complained of second class status, are watching protests in neighboring Bahrain, where Shi'ites are demanding democratic reforms.
Around 60 percent of the native Saudi population of 18 million are thought to be under 30, most of whom grew up in the information revolution age that raised awareness of rights among Arab protesters elsewhere and helped them organize.
But clerics, allowed wide powers in society, have traditionally said that questioning the Saudi rulers is a taboo.
Activists say a widely-anticipated cabinet reshuffle could help dampen Internet activism if it brings in new faces.
"All reformers are waiting for the long-awaited cabinet reshuffle," said Mahmoud Sabbagh, a newspaper columnist. "If it turns out to be just cosmetic, then my analysis is that reformers will regroup and escalate."
In an open letter published on Sunday, around 100 Saudi intellectuals, activists and university professors called on the king to launch major political reforms and allow citizens to have a greater say in ruling the country.
Their key demand is elections to the Shura Assembly.
"The people must be the source of power and a partner in public policy through their choice of elected Shura Assembly members," it said. "That is why we look forward to a royal decree that assures clearly that the government is committed to transforming into a constitutional monarchy."
King Abdullah championed cautious political, economic and social reforms when he took power in 2005. Conservatives fear too much speed could rile the clerics.
"I think the Saudi monarchy is aware of the need for change and it is the time for it," said Turad al-Amri, a Saudi political analyst. "There will be major change soon but I'm not sure if it will meet the expectations (of activists)."
Reporting by Asma Alsharif; Editing by Andrew Hammond and Samia Nakhoul