Gulf forces brace for protests

2011-03-11 14:46

Riyadh - Police turned out in large numbers on the streets of the capital of Saudi Arabia and security was high in a number of other Gulf States, as authorities braced for possible protests after Friday prayers.

Friday demonstrations have proved decisive in popular uprisings that have overthrown the rulers of Tunisia and Egypt and are now having an impact on the oil-rich Gulf region - long thought to be largely immune to civil unrest.

Hard line opposition groups said on Friday they would march on the royal court in tiny Bahrain, upping the stakes in month-long demonstrations there that have cost seven lives.

Tens of thousands of anti-government protesters also marched through the capital of Yemen, the poorest country on the Arabian Peninsula, and riot police fired tear gas to disperse a small protest of 200 to 300 people in Kuwait.

The new Arab awakening has even seeped into the conservative kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a long-time US ally that ensures oil supplies for the West, where a variety of online forums have sought to take grievances from the internet to the streets.

Saudi regime matters

Dozens of uniformed police patrolled the main squares in the capital Riyadh. A helicopter circled above one mosque, with busloads of police parked nearby. There was also a heavy security presence in the second city, Jeddah.

If protests take place, they might start up some time after noon prayers finish at 13:00 or after evening prayers around 17:00.

"The fact that the Saudi regime is making a big deal of this suggests that it may be a big deal," said Shadi Hamid, an analyst at the Brookings Centre in Doha.

Tension was also high in the island state of Bahrain, which is connected to Saudi Arabia by a 25km causeway.

Bahrain's interior ministry warned that the planned march on the royal court was a threat to internal security on the island, where the majority is Shi'ite Muslim but the ruling family is Sunni. It said its forces would intervene to head off violence.

The opposition is increasingly split in Bahrain and moderate leaders were urging hardliners to cancel the march on the royal court in Riffa, which was set to begin at 15:30.

Focus on politics, not jobs

Gulf rulers are struggling to hold back a new generation of Arabs who grew up in the internet age of easy networking and have grown increasingly bold in their demands for change.

In an act of regional solidarity, Gulf Arab oil producers on Thursday launched a $20bn aid package for Bahrain and Oman - a job-generating measure that will enable the two countries to upgrade their housing and infrastructure.

Youth unemployment is high across the Gulf, but protests have often focused more on gaining greater political freedom and sweeping away rampant corruption than on economic discontent.

Sectarian tensions have also come to the fore, with the Shi'ite majority in Bahrain voicing their anger against the domination of the ruling Sunni dynasty.

Saudis warn foreigners not to intervene

In Saudi Arabia, the Shi'ite minority complain that they suffer lower living standards than Sunnis, despite the fact that many of them come from a major oil-producing region in the east of the country.

Saudi leaders have told foreign states not to interfere in their domestic affairs - a veiled warning to Shi'ite, non-Arab Iran, often suspected of stirring discontent in the region.

"We will cut any finger that crosses into the kingdom," Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said this week.