From the Financial Times , By Abeer Allam in Riyadh
Demonstrators staged a rare rally after Friday prayers in Riyadh, marking the first such protest in the Saudi capital, as the kingdom braced itself for an Egypt-inspired “Friday of Rage” next week.
Meanwhile, small protests continued in the oil-rich Eastern Province towns of al-Ahsa and Qateef, with demonstrators demanding the release of political prisoners.
In Riyadh, security helicopters hovered over protesters gathered in front of Al-Rajhi mosque, in the east of the capital, in what an unknown opposition group described as a “Friday of mobilisation”.
Some protesters chanted “thieves, thieves, where is the 200bn”, “God is great”, and “God will destroy the arrogant and unjust”, as well as “peaceful, peaceful”.
Meanwhile, in a YouTube internet video seen by the Financial Times, a man carried a banner that said “Youth of March 4”. The video claimed that 2,000 people took part in the rally, later dispersed by police. Others said there were merely dozens of protesters. It was not possible to verify either estimate.
It is not clear who was behind the protests, or who the “Youth of March 4” are, though they are apparently inspired by Egypt’s “Youth of April 6”.
Pro-democracy activist Mohamed Fahd al-Qahtani said at least half of those who led the protests support the London-based Islamist opposition Saad al-Faqih. Others, he said, are frustrated citizens with no affiliation.
“There is a general sense of disappointment, people want serious reforms,” said Mr Qahtani. “There is a different mood now inspired by Egyptian and Tunisian revolts and the current uprising in Libya. People want the government to show real intention for reform. They feel worthless; we lag behind other countries and excluded from the political process.”
In Saudi Arabia protests and public displays of dissent are outlawed. The government has become increasingly nervous about the protests that have taken the Arab world by storm, toppling the Egyptian and Tunisian presidents, and which recently reached Oman and Bahrain. Saudi reformists had hoped that after King Abdullah returned from a three-month medical trip to the US and Morocco, he would announce reforms. Instead, he announced an estimated SR135bn ($36bn) in financial and unemployment benefit measures.
“This is a very proud family, they do not want to be seen as afraid of instability that is shaking other regimes,” said a western analyst close to members of the royal family. “They will take their time because they do not want to be seen as succumbing to pressure.”
Waleed Sulais, a Shia activist, said: “The government is very tense right now. The authorities do not like mosques or Friday sermons being used to discuss politics, they warned against it. But the numbers are increasing every day as people become bolder. There has to be serious steps [towards reform] or anger will explode.”
The governor of the Eastern Province is reportedly meeting with leading Shia figures tomorrow to discuss grievances, including release of so-called “forgotten prisoners”.
Separately, anti-government protests resumed in Bahrain on Friday amid rising sectarian tensions. Demonstrators marched from government buildings to the Pearl roundabout, the focal point for the youth-driven movement demanding the downfall of the government.
Fights broke out between Shias and Sunnis in the country on Thursday night, raising the spectre of sectarian violence.
As protests enter their third week, the street battles mark the first escalation into intercommunal violence, amid increasingly bitter rhetoric