Nearly 200 Shiites chanting "We want freedom!" protested in Saudi Arabia's eastern province Wednesday, even as the foreign minister warned that the oil-rich nation will take strong action if activists take to the streets.
The gathering in Qatif by members of the country's Shiite Muslim minority is a smaller version of a planned "Day of Rage" on Friday to demand the Saudi regime's ouster, inspired by the wave of uprisings in the Arab world.
The government, which is working to quell the unrest, accuses Shiites from outside the country of spurring the protests. The pro-Western Saudi monarchy is concerned protests could open footholds for Shiite powerhouse Iran.
"The kingdom does not interfere in the affairs of others and will not allow for anyone to interfere in its own affairs," Prince Saud al-Faisal said Wednesday at a press conference in Saudi Arabia's port of Jiddah. Using a figure of speech, he said his regime would "cut off any finger" raised against the regime.
"Reform cannot be achieved through protests ... The best way to achieve demands is through national dialogue," he said.
While Saudi Arabia has been mostly spared the upheaval in the rest of the Middle East, a robust protest movement has risen up in its tiny neighbor, Bahrain, led by that country's Shiite Muslim majority.
The Interior Ministry on Monday reiterated that demonstrations are banned in the kingdom on grounds that they contradict Islamic laws and values and said in a statement that its security forces will act against anyone taking part in them.
The warning _ which came after about 100 Shiites staged a protest in the eastern town of Hofuf earlier this month _ was the latest attempt by Saudi Arabia to get ahead of the unrest that has swept the Arab world in recent months. Last week, the government announced an unprecedented economic package worth an estimated $36 billion that will give Saudis interest-free home loans, unemployment assistance and debt forgiveness.
On Feb. 24, a group of influential intellectuals urged King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia's 86-year-old monarch, to adopt far-reaching political and social reforms. They said Arab rulers should learn from the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, and listen to the voice of disenchanted young people. The group includes renowned Islamic scholars, a female academic, a poet and a former diplomat.
A Facebook page calling for a "Saudi Revolution 11 March" in Saudi Arabia has attracted close to 9,000 fans. Messages posted on the page calls for protests on March 11 and 20 and urges people to gather in mosques across the country including Mecca and Riyadh. The page calls for the regime's ouster and lists demands including the election of a ruler and members of the advisory assembly known as the Shura Council.