Planned day of protests key test for Saudi Arabia

SaudiSaudi Arabia’s capital was quiet on Friday ahead of a planned day of demonstrations that will test whether activists calling for reform political online will succeed in taking their protests to the streets.

A loose coalition of liberals, rights activists, moderate Sunni Islamists and Shi’ite Muslims has called for reform and a Facebook page urging protests, strictly forbidden in the conservative kingdom, attracted more than 30,000 supporters.

The government made those views clear late on Thursday, when police dispersed Shi’ite protests in the town of Qatif in the oil-producing Eastern province. Shots were heard from the area where some 200 people were demonstrating.

Dozens of uniformed police patrolled main squares in Riyadh as scores of police cars toured the streets. A helicopter circled above one city mosque and busloads of police were parked nearby, significantly raising the security presence. There was also a heavy police presence in the second city of Jeddah.

If protests take place, they might start up after noon prayers at 1 p.m. (1000 GMT) or after evening prayers around 5 p.m. (1400 GMT)

"The fact the Saudi regime is making a big deal of this suggests that it may be a big deal … If the first kind of explicitly pro-democracy protests happen (on Friday) that sets a precedent and we’ll probably see more pro-democracy protests," said Shadi Hamid, of the Brookings Centre in Doha.

"Even if its 200 or 300 that is still, by Saudi standards, a big deal and something to worry about."

A diplomat in the Gulf region said protests were not expected to evolve into a mass demonstration on Friday and the Saudi government would respond through non-lethal means.


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