x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Heavy police presence in Riyadh as Saudi capital stays quiet

Riyadh calm despite call for 'Day of Rage' as many say they ignored Facebook campaign because it was launched by people who do not have a clear platform for their political activity.

RIYADH AND QATIF, Saudi Arabia // A heavy police presence, including checkpoints on main thoroughfares and helicopters hovering over key sites, blanketed the Saudi capital yesterday in anticipation of possible anti-government demonstrations, which failed to materialise.

The appeals for Saudis to show their dissatisfaction with the government in a so-called "Day of Rage", delivered principally on Facebook,went unheeded.

There were no reports of protests elsewhere in the country except in Awwamiya and Uum al Hamam, two small towns outside the Shiite majority city of Qatif in the oil rich-Eastern Province, according to a Shiite community leader. There also was a demonstration in the eastern town of Hofuf, Dow Jones reported.

The ministry of interior spokesman General Mansour al Turki said: "The Saudi people have answered [and shown] their relationship to the [protest] calls going on in cyberspace."

As is usual on Friday mornings, the streets of Riyadh were empty. But traffic policemen manned checkpoints at many key intersections and scores of policemen were stationed outside Al Rajhi Mosque, and two courthouses, sites where demonstrators had been asked to stage protests.

The appeals for street actions were apparently inspired by recent events in Egypt and Tunisia, where massive and sustained demonstrations by thousands of citizens ultimately brought down two Arab leaders.

These revolutions, along with a wave of protests in other countries such as Yemen and the ongoing uprising in Libya, appeared to generate greater interest in the Facebook appeals for Saudi protests than they would have drawn at other times.

A London-based Saudi dissident, Sa'd al Faqih, had also called on his personal television channel for protests, Saudis said.

Many Saudis said they had dismissed the Facebook calls because they were being made by unknown persons who did not have a clear platform for their political activity.

Besides, protests are illegal in Saudi Arabia. The ministry of interior reminded Saudis of the law in a firmly worded statement last Saturday, and added that those who violated that ban "will be subject to the full force of the relevant regulations".

Also, the country's senior clerics issued a warning on Sunday that anti-government demonstrations were religiously unlawful. The Senior Council of Ulema, whose members are appointed by the government, said that "demonstrations were forbidden in this country. The correct way in Sharia [law] of realising common interest is by advising, which is what the Prophet Mohammed established. Reform and advice should not be via demonstrations and ways that provoke strife and division."

There was also a heavy police presence yesterday in the Shiite-majority town of Qatif in the kingdom's Eastern Province. Police cars cruised the narrow street in central Qatif every few minutes and military troops idled beside armoured personnel carriers.

At least five buses of troops were parked along a one-kilometre stretch of the city, and cars were checked by the military as worshippers left after midday prayers. All these forces outnumbered civilians on the streets.

Shiite residents of Qatif and neighbouring towns have held small protests regularly over the past three weeks demanding the release of Shiites detained for long periods without charges and protesting against discrimination that they say makes them second-class citizens.

On Thursday, a protest in Qatif ended in violence leaving one policeman and two protesters injured, according to General al Turki. The protesters' injuries came from bullets, he added.

He said policemen monitoring the protest had fired upwards into the air in order to disperse the demonstrators after some of them began beating a policeman who had been spotted "documenting armed fire from the group". He said that the incident is under investigation.

In Riyadh, the ministry of information organised a bus tour for journalists to several sites named by protest organisers as places to demonstrate, including Al Rajhi Mosque and part of Olaya Street, a major city centre boulevard.

At another site, as reporters were photographing police guarding a courthouse building, a man approached reporters and began denouncing the ruling royal family, saying he wanted to be part of a demonstration but that the large police presence had prevented people from arriving.

"I need freedom, I need democracy … the whole country is a prison," said the man, Khalid Muhammad al Jahani, 40, an Arabic teacher.

Mr al Jahani said he fully expected to be arrested but did not care. Ministry of information officials and police did not interrupt Mr al Jahani's conversation with reporters, and he drove off later in what several witnesses said was an expensive sports car.

 

cmurphy@thenational.ae