Saudi tries to nip protests in the bud

Activists have set up Facebook pages calling for protests on March 11 and 20, with over 17,000 supporters combined, but police managed to stymie two attempts to stage protests in the Red Sea city of Jeddah last month, highlighting the difficulties of such mobilisation in the conservative kingdom.

In one case around 30 to 50 people were detained by police when they gathered on the street, eyewitnesses said. In the second, security forces flooded the location of a protest that had been advertised on Facebook, scaring protesters away.

“They are watching closely what people are saying on Facebook and Twitter,” said Saudi blogger Ahmed al-Omran. “Obviously they are anxious as they are surrounded with unrest and want to make sure we don’t catch the bug.”

Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil producer, bans public protests and political parties. In 2004 Saudi security forces, carrying batons and shields thwarted protests in Riyadh and Jeddah called for by a Saudi dissident group in London.

Last week King Abdullah, a close US ally, ordered wage rises for Saudi citizens along with other benefits on his return from three months abroad for medical treatment.  The handouts, valued at $37 billion, were an apparent bid to insulate the kingdom from the wave of protests hitting Arab countries, but activists want more than money.

There has been no sign that the kingdom will introduce elections to its advisory Shura Assembly, a quasi-parliament, or a new round of municipal council elections.

“They have been monitoring the Internet, Facebook and other sites for some time but now it demands more attention,” said Mai Yamani, a Saudi analyst based in London.

“Saudis are no different from their brothers and sisters in the region — they are educated, connected and angry,” she added.

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