- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 16, 2004

JIDDA, Saudi Arabia — Saudi police thwarted anti-government demonstrations yesterday, firing rubber bullets and chasing down protesters who called for the ouster of the kingdom’s royal family.

In the port city of Jidda, protesters used cell phone text messaging to communicate during a cat-and-mouse game with police.

Both sides eventually converged at a cemetery in the old section of Jidda, where a standoff took place.

Reporters saw police in bulletproof vests chase and arrest at least six protesters.

This demonstration, along with another planned in the capital, Riyadh, were organized by supporters of exiled Saudi dissident Saad Al-Fagih. A large number of police were deployed in the capital, but no visible demonstration took place there.

London-based Mr. Al-Fagih, who heads the Movement of Islamic Reform in Arabia, said this week that the protests were aimed at overthrowing the ruling Al-Saud royal family because they were beyond reform.

The dissident often broadcasts calls for change in Saudi Arabia from London, beaming in his message by satellite to TV viewers in the kingdom.

The dissident’s call triggered opposition from some reform-minded Saudis..

“Fagih’s message of violent change is really alien to most Saudis,” one reformer told The Washington Times on the condition of anonymity. “If he was smart, he would have called for Saudis to come out for reform, not for the total revolution he’s calling for.”

Thirty-five Saudi religious scholars issuing a statement on the eve of the protests that reform was indeed needed in the kingdom, but that demonstrating was the wrong way to achieve it and would lead to chaos.

Years of corruption by high government officials, a dwindling per capita income and a booming population have led to discontent among many Saudis, especially in the working class.

The royal family will leave behind “a massive legacy of poverty, unemployment, crime, ailing infrastructure, and scores of prisoners, tortured ones and a social chaos,” Mr. Fagih said in remarks posted on the Internet before yesterday’s demonstrations.

“We came just to watch,” said a black-veiled Saudi woman a few yards from the standoff, who was clearly sympathetic to the demands of the protesters. “Write about this; it’s important.”

Mr. 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.

The Saudi government says Mr. Fagih has ties to terrorists, a charge he denies.

The same day the protests were called, an audiotape attributed to another notorious Saudi, terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, appeared on a Web site. The tape fiercely criticized the Saudi royal family.

In recent years, militant Muslims have staged suicide bombings and kidnappings of foreigners in an attempt to oust the monarchy.

The United States and a number of Saudi intellectuals have been pressing the kingdom for gradual democratic reforms.

The government has promised municipal elections next year, the first of any kind in the kingdom in years, and recently moved to initiate public debate on democratization and other issues.

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