- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 14, 2003

JIDDA, Saudi Arabia — Hundreds of Saudis marched down the main avenue of the capital, Riyadh, yesterday in an unprecedented demonstration timed to coincide with the opening of the kingdom’s first human rights conference.

The U.S., German and British embassies, meanwhile, warned the expatriate community yesterday that there was credible evidence of a terrorist plot against the capital’s two landmark skyscrapers.

It was next to one of them, the Kingdom Tower, that demonstrators chanting “Allahu Akbar,” or “God is Great,” were dispersed by anti-riot police, who fired shots into the air two hours after the protest began.

Several demonstrators were arrested and taken away in buses, but witnesses said many were released after a few hours.

Traffic in the city center was brought to a standstill, and there was a heavy presence of special security forces throughout the capital.

The protest was organized by Saudi dissident Saad al-Faqih, head of the London-based Movement for Islamic Reform. He is calling for the ruling Saud dynasty to be overthrown.

It is not clear how much support Mr. al-Faqih has in Saudi Arabia. Despite months of promoting the protest through a radio station he controls, only a few hundred Saudis turned out to demonstrate.

Interior Minister Prince Nayef had told reporters in Riyadh before the protest: “These calls [for a demonstration] are worthless barking, and I think only the ignorant will respond to them. This is illegal, and we hope the Saudi citizens will rise above it.”

Reformist intellectuals in the kingdom, who have petitioned the de facto ruler thrice this year to push for greater reforms, have unconditionally distanced themselves from Mr. al-Faqih. Most of the demonstrators yesterday were under age 30.

For the past week, Saudis in the capital have been driving past a huge banner with the words “Human Rights.” It was hung there not by the protesters calling for greater reforms, but by the Saudi government.

In a country in which locals are often reluctant even to mention the phrase “human rights” in public, the significance of Saudi Arabia playing host to the Human Rights in Peace and War Conference — organized by the Saudi Red Crescent Society — cannot be underestimated.

The demonstration yesterday also was historic. But no one was surprised that the Saudi government refused to let it gather momentum.

While the Saud family is now committed to ushering in a cautious program of constitutional reforms, it knows it must address key economic and social issues gradually, so as not to provoke a backlash from any of the Islamic state’s many constituents.

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