By Andrew Hammond
DUBAI (Reuters) - Arab uprisings that have spread to the conservative Gulf region face a crucial test this week in Saudi Arabia where activists have made unprecedented calls for mass protests against the kingdom's absolute monarchy.
Gulf leaders are struggling to hold back an Internet-era generation of Arabs who appear less inclined to accept arguments appealing to religion and tradition to explain why ordinary citizens should be shut out of decision-making.
Protests are planned in other Gulf countries such as Yemen, Kuwait and Bahrain Friday, the region's weekend. The time after Friday prayers has proved to be crucial in popular uprisings that have brought down Tunisian and Egyptian rulers who once seemed invulnerable.
Saudi Arabia, the largest country in the Gulf, is home to Islam's holiest sites and a long-time U.S. ally that has ensured oil supplies for the West.
More than 32,000 people have backed a Facebook call to hold two demonstrations in the country, the first of them Friday.
Riyadh has tried to counter the call with promises of money and other measures including a pro-government Facebook page "against the revolution" with 23,000 supporters.
"There is no fear but much anticipation. I don't necessarily think much will happen tomorrow, but the most important thing is that an idea has appeared," said former Saudi judge Abdelaziz al-Gassem, adding small numbers could set off a chain reaction.
"(Gulf rulers) are deluded in thinking they can ignore the demands," he said. "They are facing their biggest test ever, bigger than al Qaeda -- the people demanding justice, equality, the rule of law, supervision of government. This cannot be dealt with through violence."
Saudi Arabia has tried to present itself over the years as immune to the kind of activism now sweeping the Arab world. But al-Gassem, a campaigner for reforms, said these arguments were "nonsense."
SHI'ITES LEAD THE WAY
Minority Shi'ites in the Eastern Province near Bahrain have already held small protests over the past three weeks and clerics are trying to dissuade Sunnis in the major cities from joining in by branding the demonstrations a Shi'ite phenomenon.
"Secret Shi'ite hands want to corrupt this country," messages sent to mobile phones this week said.
"What the regime is worried about is setting a precedent for protests, that when people have problems they're going to feel more comfortable and more willing to take to the streets," said Shadi Hamid, an analyst with the Brookings Institute in Qatar.
Washington -- which has buttressed the Gulf dynasties as a counterbalance to Iran -- raised the stakes in comments this week calling peaceful assembly a universal right that must be respected even in a country that claims unique status as an Islamic state like Saudi Arabia.
Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal slammed "foreign intervention" in a press conference Wednesday that seemed to highlight the problems facing a family that monopolizes political life in a country named after them.
"The called-for reform does not come via protests and (the clerics) have forbidden protests since they violate the Koran and the way of the Prophet," said Prince Saud, who has occupied the foreign minister portfolio since 1975.
STARTED IN YEMEN AND SPREAD
The protest movements hit populous Yemen a month ago and spread to the Gulf states where dynasties who secured their rule in colonial times and have bought their people's acquiescence by dispensing petrodollars.
Bahrain has been the most vulnerable. Majority Shi'ites who resent domination by the al-Khalifa dynasty have staged pro-democracy protests and analysts say Saudi pressure has been heavy on Manama to stamp them out.
This week hardline Shi'ite groups formed an alliance to ditch the monarchy and turn Bahrain -- an island state whose rulers look to Riyadh for support -- into a republic.
Yemen is also set for an escalation after opposition groups, who have held pro-democracy marches for the past month, rejected veteran ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh's offer of reforms Thursday.
A small number of Kuwaitis held protests this week, while activists and intellectuals in the United Arab Emirates petitioned the rulers for democratic elections. Last week Omanis clashed with police over jobs and corruption in government.
Several Gulf rulers seem to hope more money will solve their problems.
Saudi King Abdullah has vowed to distribute some $37 billion in handouts to students, the unemployed and other low-income Saudis via a series of pay bonuses and benefits announced as he returned in February after a three-month absence for medical treatment.
The more affluent Gulf states are looking at a package worth billions of dollars to help poorer Gulf countries Bahrain and Oman.
"For most of us, it's not about money, it's about having a share in our government," said Mohammed al-Mansoori, a rights activist in the United Arab Emirates. "In other places people have dignity, here, people don't."
(Additional reporting by Erika Solomon; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)