Police flood Saudi capital ahead of protests

Police flood Saudi capital ahead of protests

Police blocked roads and set up random checkpoints in Riyadh, searching residents around a central mosque as large numbers of people gathering for Friday prayers raised the prospect of them later spilling into the streets for mass demonstrations.

Yesterday, rare violence broke out at another protest in the country's east when Saudi police opened fire to disperse demonstrators in the city of Qatif, where minority Shiites live. At least three protesters and one police officer were wounded.

Although protests have so far been confined to small rallies in the east, activists have been emboldened by other uprisings in the region that have toppled longtime rulers of Tunisia and Egypt. The Saudi activists have set up online groups calling for protests in Riyadh today.

Any violence at today's planned protests could reverberate through the world's markets because of the importance of Saudi oil exports.

Discord is common between authorities and the country's Shiites, who make up 10 per cent of the Kingdom's 23 million citizens.

The Shiites have long complained of discrimination, saying they are barred from key positions in the military and government and are not given an equal share of the country's wealth.

The pro-Western monarchy is concerned protests could open footholds for Shiite powerhouse Iran and has accused foreigners of stoking the protests, which are officially forbidden.

Despite the ban on demonstrations and a warning that security forces will act against them, protesters demanding the release of political prisoners took to the streets yesterday for a second day in the eastern city of Qatif. Several hundred protesters, some wearing masks to avoid being identified, marched after dark asking for "Freedom for prisoners."

Police, who were lined up opposite the protesters, fired percussion bombs followed by gunfire, causing the crowd to scatter, a witness said. Mainly Sunni Saudi Arabia has struggled to stay ahead of the unrest that has led to the ouster of the Egyptian and Tunisian leaders in recent weeks.

Last month, the ultraconservative Saudi government announced an unprecedented economic package worth an estimated USD 36 billion that will give Saudis interest-free home loans, unemployment assistance and debt forgiveness.