Police chased would-be protesters through the streets of a port city and arrested others in the Saudi capital, responding with overwhelming force Thursday to calls from an exiled dissident for demonstrations against the Saudi royal family.
There were reports of scores of arrests in Jiddah and Riyadh but officials refused to confirm or deny those reports, saying a statement would be released soon.
London-based dissident Saad al-Fagih, head of the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia, had called via his TV and radio stations and on his Web site for simultaneous anti-monarchy protests in Riyadh and the eastern seaport of Jiddah. Al-Fagih could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday.
The group failed to pull off protests last month. Last year, al-Fagih’s group mobilized only about 100 protesters in Riyadh and similar numbers in Jiddah, Dammam and Hail, partly because large numbers of security forces waited at the demonstration venues, as they did Thursday. Police fired tear gas to break up last year’s demonstrations and arrested scores of protesters.
In Jiddah Thursday, at least six people were seen being arrested and dozens in small groups were seen running from police. At one point, a volley of gunshots could be heard in an area were protesters were trying to gather. It was not immediately clear what happened.
In an apparently unrelated firing incident in Jiddah, a Saudi security official said Saudi police arrested two men who fired a pistol in the air near a spot where a demonstration had been planned.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said police did not return fire after the incident in the Red Sea port of Jiddah, but chased down the two men and arrested them. The two are likely linked to al-Fagih, the official said.
Interior Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Mansour al-Turki confirmed two men were arrested in Jiddah after firing a pistol in the air. The two were being interrogated, he said.
Witnesses in the northwestern city of Tabuk said a few people demonstrated outside government buildings. Similar gatherings were reported in Hail. No confrontations with the police occurred, witnesses said.
About 2½ hours after the protests were supposed to begin, the assembly areas in Riyadh remained packed with police and special forces, an indication that even though protests have not taken place, al-Fagih managed to create unusual tension in the capital.
Group calls for democracy
Al-Fagih’s group says it seeks to replace the monarchy with a liberal, democratic government. In today’s Saudi Arabia, the king wields absolute power. There are no legal political parties. Public protests are banned and the press is controlled.
While some Saudis question al-Fagih’s motives and liberal credentials, he is believed to have strong support among the masses, where his criticism of the Saudi royal family’s excesses strikes a chord.
A senior Saudi princess who said she opposed al-Fagih said Thursday’s protest attempt should put the royal family on notice that it should take seriously the concerns of struggling Saudis who need jobs, health care and food. The princess, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Thursday’s events would make the royal family nervous, but that it was unclear whether they would spark needed change.
The same day the protests were called, an audiotape attributed to Osama bin Laden fiercely criticizing the Saudi royal family appeared on a Web site known for militant Islamic postings. While the al-Qaida chief espouses violence, al-Fagih advocates peaceful change.
The monarchy has grappled with conflicting pressures in the past two years from militant Islamists, who have staged suicide bombings and kidnappings of foreigners, and from the United States, which has called for liberal reform. Saudi intellectuals, too, have urged reform, arguing that the country’s strict interpretation of Islam has yielded a society that is conducive to extremism.
However, some Saudi intellectuals here scoff at exile al-Fagih, saying his promises do not strike a chord with them.
The Saudi government accuses al-Fagih of extremism and says he has strong ties to terrorists. Al-Fagih denies such charges.
The government has promised municipal elections next year, the first of any kind in the kingdom in years, and recently launched a national dialogue to open public debate on democratization and other issues.