Strong police presence deters rallies in Saudi capital

 

SAUDI ARABIA AND BAHRAIN:A HEAVY police presence in the Saudi capital yesterday prevented rallies by activists inspired by democratic movements that have toppled veteran leaders in Tunisia and Egypt.

Police monitored traffic from helicopters and set up checkpoints, limiting access to the centre of Riyadh and searching vehicles near the central mosque ahead of weekly communal prayers. When protesters did not materialise, police withdrew from the streets.

Saudi interior minister Prince Nayef bin Abdel Aziz had warned dissidents not to stage rallies while senior clerics, the Ulema, ruled that protests against the kingdom’s rulers, regarded as guardians of Islam’s two holiest sites, violate Sharia, Islamic canon law.

However, Saudi reformers said these prohibitions and police action did not account for the failure of the demonstrations. Instead they argued that the group inciting the protests consisted largely of foreign-based Saudi dissidents connected by the internet.

Demanding elections for both ruler and parliament, they had called for a “Day of Rage” and the launch of a “March 11th revolution” on the one month anniversary of the toppling of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.

King Abdullah is genuinely popular and seen as trying to effect political change in the deeply conservative kingdom. Last month, in a bid to head off popular protests, he announced a $36 billion package of measures providing Saudis with jobs, interest-free home loans and debt forgiveness. On Thursday, in the eastern city of Qatif, police opened up with percussion bombs and live bullets at several hundred protesters who responded with stones and petrol bombs. Three demonstrators and one police officer were wounded.

The demonstrators, who had gathered for a second day, were protesting discriminatory treatment of the 10-15 per cent Shia minority and calling for the release of Shia political prisoners.

Shias complain that they are not permitted to take up sensitive positions in the military, police and civil service and do not receive a share in the country’s oil wealth in line with their proportion in the population of 23 million.

In Bahrain, meanwhile, police opened fire on thousands of anti-government protesters yesterday as they made their way to the royal court in Riffa, injuring over 100.

There were unconfirmed reports of live rounds being used, with two injured, and the deployment of nerve gas by the security forces. Dozens of the injured taken to hospital appeared to be unconscious.