Demonstrations won’t be tolerated in Saudi Arabia and its security forces will act against anyone taking part in them, the Interior Ministry said on Saturday, a day after about 100 members of the Shiite minority staged a protest in an eastern region of the kingdom.
The warning was another attempt by Saudi Arabia to get ahead of the unrest that has swept the Arab world in recent months. Last week, the government announced an unprecedented economic package worth an estimated US$36 billion that will give Saudis interest-free home loans, unemployment assistance and debt forgiveness.
The Interior Ministry statement said the kingdom bans all demonstrations because they contradict Islamic laws and society’s values, adding that some people have tried to go around the law to “achieve illegitimate aims.”
Security forces were authorized to act against anyone violating the ban, the statement said.
The demonstration followed Friday prayers in the eastern town of Hofuf when the Shiites demanded the release of detainees, including Tawfiq al-Amer, a Shiite cleric who was arrested last week after he called for a constitutional monarchy.
On Feb. 24, a group of influential intellectuals urged King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia’s 86-year-old monarch, to adopt far-reaching political and social reforms.
They said Arab rulers should learn from the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, and listen to the voice of disenchanted young people. The group includes renowned Islamic scholars, a female academic, a poet and a former diplomat.
While oil-rich Saudi Arabia has been mostly spared the unrest in the Middle East, a robust protest movement has risen up in its tiny neighbor, Bahrain, which like -others around the region is centered on calls for representative government and relief from poverty and unemployment.
A Facebook page calling for a “March 11 Revolution of Longing” in Saudi Arabia has begun attracting hundreds of viewers.
A message posted on the page calls for “the ousting of the regime” and lists demands including the election of a ruler and members of the advisory assembly known as the Shura Council.
There are no government figures in Saudi Arabia that provide a national income breakdown, but analysts estimate there are more than 450,000 jobless.
About two-thirds of the population is under 29 — and many of them chafe under the harsh religious rules that keep the sexes largely segregated.
In Washington, US Department of State spokesman P.J. Crowley said the US called for Saudis’ rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression to be respected.
“We have communicated our position to the Saudi government as part of our regular, ongoing dialogue and have been for some time,” he said.