RIYADH (Reuters) - Police flooded the streets of the Saudi capital on Friday to deter a planned day of protests inspired by pan-Arab revolt, but a small Shi‘ite demonstration was reported in the country’s oil-producing east.
There was no sign of protest by late afternoon in Riyadh, in the kingdom’s conservative Sunni heartland, a day after a clampdown on a Shi‘ite rally in the east showed the government was serious about enforcing a ban on demonstrations.
Scores of uniformed police patrolled Riyadh’s main squares and helicopters buzzed over the city as police checked identity cards and searched car boots on roads leading to a mosque where protests had been expected after Friday prayers.
Security was also tight in the second city of Jeddah.
“It is not in our culture to protest like in other countries,” one government official told Reuters, commenting on the absence of protesters. “I think people exaggerated in expecting such a huge thing.”
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 attracted more than 30,000 supporters.
Saudi Arabia is the world’s top oil exporter, a major U.S. ally which has guaranteed Western energy supplies for decades, and the calls for protests have put markets on edge.
Protests in Riyadh, even on a small scale, would pose a challenge to the Saudi government as it tries to showcase itself as a stable country even as protests rage just over its borders in Bahrain, Yemen and Oman.
In Riyadh, a sole demonstrator approached a group of journalists on a government bus tour near a Saudi court of grievances, saying he wanted to demand democracy and greater freedoms but didn’t find any fellow demonstrators.
“The people will come after two hours, maybe ... People are angry,” he said, appearing on the verge of tears. “They are scared. Everybody goes around the area and sees the police. They feel afraid. Come on. We are human.”
Activist Mohammed al-Qahtani, who has signed petitions demanding reforms and the sacking of the interior minister, said the security presence had dampened the appetite to speak out.
In Saudi Arabia’s east, however, more than 200 Shi‘ite protesters rallied in the city of Hofuf, which is close to the eastern Ghawar oil field and major refinery installations, two Shi‘ite activists said.
Shi‘ite towns in the east have seen scattered protests in the last three weeks, inspired by Shi‘ite protests in neighboring Bahrain. Saudi Shi‘ites complain of discrimination in the face of the country’s dominant Sunni majority.
Riyadh, which denies any discrimination, is closely watching the outcome of protests elsewhere in the Gulf, especially in Bahrain whose Shi‘ite majority is seeking an elected government.
Saudi Arabia, where Shi‘ites comprise up to 15 percent of the population, fears sustained unrest there could embolden its own Shi‘ite minority.
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.
In a sign that Riyadh was keen to address brewing discontent, ruler King Abdullah unveiled benefits for Saudis worth about $37 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