Heavy police presence deters protesters in Saudi Arabia

The World

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Appeals issued mainly on Facebook for Saudis to stage a so-called “Day of Rage” went unheeded Friday as a heavy police presence blanketed this capital city to prevent any large-scale demonstration.

Traffic police manned checkpoints at many key intersections and scores of police were stationed outside Al Rajhi Mosque, and two courthouses — sites where demonstrators had been asked to stage protests. A helicopter also patrolled the skies over these key points.

There were no reports of protests elsewhere in the country except in Awwamiya and Uum al Hamam, two small towns outside the Shiite majority city of Qatif in the oil rich-Eastern province, according to a Shiite community leader. There also was a demonstration in the eastern town of Hofuf, according to Dow Jones.

“The Saudi people have answered [and shown] their relationship to the [protest] calls going on in cyberspace,” said Gen. Mansour al Turki, a spokesman for the Ministry of Interior. “Friday is always a quiet day in our life. People go to pray and then go home. That’s exactly what people did today.”

The Facebook appeal for protests on March 11 were apparently inspired by recent events in Egypt and Tunisia, where massive and sustained demonstrations by thousands of citizens ultimately brought down two Arab leaders.

These revolutions, along with a wave of protests in other Arab countries like Yemen and the ongoing uprising in Libya, appeared to generate greater interest in the Facebook calls for Saudi protests than they would have drawn at other times.

A London-based Saudi dissident, Sa’d al Faqih, had also called for protests on his personal television channel, Saudis said.

There is genuine discontent among many Saudis over corruption and the lack of political freedoms, such as the right to form parties and trade unions, and the lack of elected bodies. This discontent was clear in several petitions demanding political reforms that were sent to the king by various groups in the last few weeks, including liberals, moderate Islamists and young people.

But even among pro-reform Saudis there was little enthusiasm for the Facebook protest calls because they were made by unknown people who did not have a clear agenda and who may not even be living in the kingdom.

Also, protests are illegal in Saudi Arabia. The Ministry of Interior reminded Saudis of that in a firmly worded statement last week, and added that those who violated the ban “will be subject to the full force of the relevant regulations.”

Government-employed Islamic clerics have been warning Saudis that open protests are "haram," which means religiously forbidden.

“Islam strictly prohibits protests in the kingdom because the ruler here rules by God's will,” the Saudi Grand Mufti, Sheikh Abdel Aziz Ibn Abudllah Alasheikh, said Friday during a sermon in Riyadh's central mosque.

Earlier this week, the Senior Council of Ulema, a clerical body whose members are appointed by the government, said that "the correct way in sharia [Islamic law] of realizing common interest is by advising, which is what the Prophet Muhammad established. Reform and advice should not be via demonstrations and ways that provoke strife and division.”

Another deterrence measure the sending of anonymous text messages to some mobile phones warning that protesters would face lengthy prison terms and loss of their Saudi citizenship. Onlookers at protests, the messages said, would also face detention and fines.

In a different approach to defusing discontent, the government also recently announced a huge economic package valued at around $36 billion that will give Saudis interest-free home loans, unemployment assistance and debt forgiveness.

In the eastern part of the kingdom, where its main oil fields are located, Shiite residents of Qatif and neighboring towns have held small protests regularly over the past three weeks. They are demanding the release of Shiites detained for long periods without charges and protesting discrimination in government jobs that they say makes them second-class citizens.

On Thursday night, a protest in Qatif ended in violence with one policeman injured in the face and two protesters injured, one in the leg and one in the hand, according to Al Turki. The protesters’ injuries came from bullets, he added.

Al Turki said that police monitoring the protest had fired upwards into the air in order to disperse the demonstrators after some of them began beating a policeman who had been spotted “documenting armed fire from the group.” He said that the entire incident is under investigation.

In Riyadh, the Saudi Ministry of Information organized a bus tour for journalists to several sites named by protest organizers as places to demonstrate, including Al Rajhi Mosque and part of Olaya Street, a major downtown boulevard.

At another site, as reporters were photographing police guarding a courthouse building, a man approached reporters and began denouncing the ruling royal family. He said he had intended to be part of a demonstration but that the large police presence had prevented people from arriving.

“I need freedom, I need democracy … the whole country is a prison,” said the man, who identified himself as a 40-year-old Arabic teacher named Khalid Muhammad Al Jahani. “I will be put in jail but I don’t care ... This is a police country.”

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