RIYADH (Reuters) - 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 U.S. 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 without trial.
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 Jordan.
Writing by Cynthia Johnston and Ulf Laessing; Editing by Louise Ireland