Nervous Saudis ponder whether to join protests

Reuters News
|
Posted: Mar 21, 2011 9:36 AM

By Ulf Laessing

RIYADH (Reuters) - Sitting in front of a Bedouin-style tent in a suburb of the Saudi capital, Said ponders aloud whether to risk prison by joining mass protests on Friday in the conservative kingdom.

"I should really go but don't know," the young man said, meeting fellow pro-democracy activists at a weekly salon-style gathering where they discuss politics and reform.

"I probably won't go. Several male family members are in jail so my family needs me," he added. He was working with other activists on a petition to King Abdullah to release prisoners they say are held without trial.

Like many other Saudis he preferred to give only his first name, fearing reprisals after repeated warnings from the government of the Sunni Muslim-dominated state over the past week that protests, deemed "un-Islamic," will not be tolerated.

More than 32,000 people have backed a call on social networking site Facebook to hold two protests this month. The first is planned for Friday.

The key U.S. ally has so far avoided unrest of the kind that toppled rulers in Egypt or Tunisia and which has spread to other Gulf countries, but dissent has built up in the top oil exporter, an absolute monarchy without an elected parliament or political parties.

Whether dissent expressed via the relative anonymity of social media will translate into street protests in the Saudi capital or its second city Jeddah is unclear.

EXPERIMENT

"I am not so sure much will happen Friday. We just don't know," said Mohammed al-Qahtani, head of the Saudi Civil And Political Rights Association, which meets once a week to work out opposition strategies. "It's like an experiment."

For almost two years the opposition group has been gathering up petitions and issuing anti-government statements, drawing a crowd of up to 50 people at its weekly diwan, a traditional meeting or salon.

A loose coalition of liberals, rights activists, moderate Sunni Islamists and Shi'ite Muslims has called for political reforms in a country which, its rulers claim, has no need of protests or parties, as an Islamic state applying sharia law.

In oil-rich Eastern Province, Shi'ites have long complained of marginalization and have staged small demonstrations for almost three weeks.

Now all eyes are on Riyadh, with some analysts worrying oil prices could hit $200 a barrel if large protests hit the kingdom. Current prices are around $115.

Riyadh, in the conservative heartland, has seen no protests of note in many years, and has few Shi'ite residents. But the government fears that unrest in Bahrain, where Shi'ites are in the majority will embolden not only Saudi Arabia's Shi'ite minority but its Sunnis too.

"I think it would be significant if protests hit Riyadh since Shi'ites (in the east) have often taken to the streets. Riyadh would be different," a Gulf-based diplomat said.

"But I'm rather skeptical."

The government has repeatedly warned people not to stage any protests Friday and a large security presence in the Saudi capital and authorities appear to be taking no chances. Police cars are parked at some junctions and patrolling at night.

Riyadh's expatriate community has been waiting almost as nervously as the government, with some embassies and foreign firms discussing whether staff should leave over the weekend.

"I am relaxed and will stay here but I know colleagues who booked flights just anywhere to be out of Riyadh Friday," said a banker.

Among activists, some locations of possible protest venues have been circulated by word of mouth to avoid alerting police.

But many even at the activists' meeting remained reluctant to get involved.

"I wish the protests luck. People have to express demands," said Ibrahim Natto, a retired university professor and activist. "But I won't go. I am an old man. I don't go to demonstrations."

(Editing by Andrew Roche)