Protests hit eastern Saudi Arabia; calm in capital

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RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Several hundred people protested in heavily Shiite eastern Saudi Arabia Friday but hundreds of police prevented protests in the capital calling for democratic reforms inspired by the wave of unrest sweeping the Arab world.

Police blocked roads and set up random checkpoints in Riyadh, searching residents and vehicles around a central mosque as large numbers of people gathered for Friday prayers. Witnesses said groups of policemen manned street corners and intersections and a helicopter flew over the city.

By midday, no protesters had showed up in the capital and the police presence significantly decreased.

In the eastern city of Qatif and nearby areas where the country’s minority Shiites live, several hundred people staged protests, shouting slogans calling for reforms and equality between Shiites and Sunnis. In Qatif, the protesters were surrounded by armored personnel carriers and dozens of riot police in full gear.

On Thursday, violence broke out at another protest in Qatif, when Saudi police opened fire to disperse demonstrators. At least three protesters and one police officer were wounded. Friday’s protest was largely peaceful.

Although protests have so far been confined to small rallies in the east, activists have been emboldened by other uprisings in the region that have toppled longtime rulers of Tunisia and Egypt. The Saudi activists have set up online groups calling for protests in Riyadh on Friday.

Any violence at Friday’s planned protests could reverberate through the world’s markets because of the importance of Saudi oil exports.

Security officials on Friday said security measures around state-run oil giant Saudi Aramco and its oil facilities in the east were beefed up protectively, in case of any violence. The company is based in Dhahran district on the kingdom’s eastern coast.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said the new measures were “considered normal under the current circumstances,” referring to the online call for protests in the area.

Investors are sensitive to any sign of upheaval in Saudi Arabia because the OPEC leader has been using its spare capacity to make up for output lost amid the violent uprising against Libya’s government. When news broke that Saudi Arabian police fired shots to break up the protest Thursday, prices soared $3 in just 12 minutes.

Discord is common between Saudi authorities and the country’s Shiites, who make up 10 percent of the kingdom’s 23 million citizens. The Shiites have long complained of discrimination, saying they are barred from key positions in the military and government and are not given an equal share of the country’s wealth.

The pro-Western monarchy is concerned protests could open footholds for Shiite powerhouse Iran and has accused foreigners of stoking the protests, which are officially forbidden.

In Riyadh, the Interior Ministry organized a tour for a few journalists who were escorted by police around the city Friday. At one point in front of a government building, the journalists encountered a man, Khaled al-Juhni, standing outside a government building, shouting calls for more freedoms.

Police and journalists watched as the man criticized the regime as a “police state” and “a big prison” before he got in his car and left.

Despite the ban on demonstrations and a warning that security forces will act against them, protesters demanding the release of political prisoners took to the streets Thursday for a second day in the eastern city of Qatif. Several hundred protesters, some wearing masks to avoid being identified, marched after dark asking for “Freedom for prisoners.”

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