Saudi Arabia imposes ban on ‘un-Islamic’ protests

Following demonstrations by Shi'ite minority in oil-producing east, gov't warns that security forces will stop all attempts to disrupt public order.

By OREN KESSLER, REUTERS
March 5, 2011 17:58
Anti-riot police stand off protesters in S. Arabia

Saudi protests 311 (R). (photo credit: REUTERS)

Saudi Arabia warned potential protesters on Saturday that a ban on marches would be enforced, signaling that small protests by the Shi’ite minority in the oil-producing east would no longer be tolerated.

“The kingdom’s regulations totally ban all sorts of demonstrations, marches, sit-ins,” the Interior Ministry said in a statement – adding that security forces would stop all attempts to disrupt public order.

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The ministry said demonstrations violated Islamic law and the kingdom’s traditions, according to a statement carried by state news agency SPA.

Inspired by protests in other Arab countries, there have been Shi’ite marches in the past few days in the east – and unconfirmed activist reports of a small protest at a mosque in the Saudi capital Riyadh on Friday.

The US ally has not faced protests on the scale that hit Egypt and Tunisia, but more than 17,000 people have backed a call on Facebook to hold two demonstrations this month – the first one on Friday.

A loose alliance of liberals, moderate Islamists and Shi’ites have petitioned King Abdullah to allow elections in the kingdom – which has no elected parliament – although even activists say they don’t know how many of the almost 19 million Saudis back them.

For about two weeks, Saudi Shi’ites have staged small protests in the kingdom’s east,which holds much of the oil wealth of the world’s top crude exporter – and borders Bahrain, scene of protests by majority Shi’ites against their Sunni rulers.

Saudi Shi’ites often struggle to get senior government jobs and other benefits like regular citizens.

The government of Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy that usually does not tolerate public dissent, denies this.

Across the border in Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh reiterated that he would remain in power until his term ends in 2013 – rejecting an opposition plan for him to step aside this year.

“The peaceful and smooth transition of power is not carried out through chaos but through the will of the people expressed through elections,” an official source at the presidential office said in a statement.

The opposition on Friday said Saleh was sticking to an earlier plan to step down in 2013, but agreed to a proposal by religious leaders to revamp elections, parliament and the judicial system.

Saleh, an ally of the United States in its battle against an al- Qaida wing based in his country, has struggled to cement a truce with Shi’ite rebels in the north, and quell a budding secessionist rebellion in the south.

Protesters are frustrated with widespread corruption and soaring unemployment in a country where 40 percent of its 23 million people live on $2 a day, or less – and a third face chronic hunger.

Separately, Deputy Minister for Youth and Sports Hashid Abdullah al-Ahmar resigned from the ruling party on Saturday in protest at the use of violence against anti-government demonstrations, a source close to him told Reuters. His resignation comes a day after an influential ally of the president, Ali Ahmad al-Omrani, a tribal sheikh from the southern al-Baida province, resigned.

Earlier on Saturday, witnesses told Reuters that three protesters were wounded on Friday evening when Yemeni security forces fired into the air and used tear gas to disperse demonstrators at a sit-in in the southern port city of Aden.

Protesters were dispersed after they gathered at a square in the city’s Sheikh Othman district following Friday prayers, the witnesses said.

Possibly more than 100,000 protested on Friday in one of the largest demonstrations in Sanaa yet – and similar numbers rallied in Taiz, south of the capital, a Reuters reporter said. More than 20,000 protesters marched in Aden, and tens of thousands marched in Ibb, south of Sanaa.

In neighboring Oman, meanwhile, Sultan Qaboos bin Said replaced two key ministers on Saturday, in response to protests across the Persian Gulf nation calling for political reforms and jobs.

Gen. Sultan bin Muhammad al-Naamani was appointed minister of the palace office, which controls the country’s security; and Khalid bin Hilal al-Busaidy becomes the new minister of the diwan of the royal court, Oman’s state news agency said, citing royal decrees.

About 200 protesters gathered in the capital Muscat on Saturday at the headquarters of the Shura Council (a quasi-parliamentary advisory body) for a seventh consecutive day – while around 150 government supporters waved Omani flags from their cars.

Sultan Qaboos, who exercises absolute power in a country where political parties are banned, reshuffled his cabinet last week in response to the protests.

In Algeria, police and pro-government activists foiled a sixth attempt by opposition protesters to march in the capital Algiers, AFP reported.

A faction of the National Coordination for Change and Democracy had called Saturday’s protest in three parts of the city for 11 a.m. – in defiance of an official ban on demonstrating in Algiers.

But several dozen demonstrators found themselves quickly surrounded by police.

Counter-demonstrators carrying photos of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika chanted “Bouteflika Is Not Mubarak” as they chased and roughed up the anti-government protesters.

Saturday’s foiled protest was the sixth attempt since January 22.

A day earlier in Jordan, hundreds marched through the capital demanding democratic reforms and an end to corruption within the Hashemite kingdom.

The mainly Islamist crowd – joined by liberal and leftist activists – marched after Friday prayers to a square in the center of Amman, shouting, “We want to reform the regime!” and “We want to fight the thieves who have robbed the country!” Jordanians have staged a number of anti-government protests in recent weeks, but the demonstrations have been smaller than in other Arab countries.

The opposition demands focus on free elections under a more representative electoral law that would form a government elected by a parliamentary majority – and not one appointed by the king, as at present.

“We want a truly representative parliament – not one that is the outcome of vote-rigging,” Jamil Abu Baker, a leading member of the Islamic Action Front, the political arm of Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood, told the crowd.

Islamist organizers said protesters also staged several small marches across Jordan from the northern city of Irbid, to the southern town of Karak.

Scattered sit-ins by disgruntled workers over pay and conditions have also been mounting in cities around Jordan in recent weeks in protest at erosion at rising poverty.

Jordan’s King Abdullah’s has responded to anti-government protests by sacking an unpopular prime minister last month and replacing him with a former intelligence general, a step seen as dealing a blow to Islamist and liberal hopes for reforms.


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