Saudi security forces thwarted planned protest marches in the kingdom’s two main cities Thursday, deploying in force in the capital, Riyadh, and arresting at least a dozen people in the Red Sea port of Jidda.
The demonstrations had been called by London-based dissident Saad Fagih, who is campaigning to overthrow the absolute monarchy. He said tens of thousands of people would take to the streets for the protests, which are illegal in Saudi Arabia.
Two men were arrested in Jidda after firing shots in the air outside a mosque where Fagih had told protesters to gather after midday prayers. At least one other person was detained.
Elsewhere in Jidda, witnesses said police arrested about 10 people who were fleeing after their small gathering was dispersed.
In Riyadh, riot police with helmets, batons and shields lined the upscale Olaya Street and King Fahd Road and helicopters hovered overhead for much of the day.
Special forces wearing ski masks and bulletproof vests surveyed the area. At least one member had a gas mask. Vehicles with water cannons stood by, but no protesters emerged.
In the northwestern city of Tabuk, a few people demonstrated outside government buildings, witnesses said, and similar gatherings were reported in Hail. No confrontations with police occurred, witnesses said.
Fagih heads the Movement of Islamic Reform in Arabia and spreads his message via satellite TV, radio and the Internet. He says he wants an elected leadership to replace the royal family, an independent judiciary and a new constitution with “the stamp of Islamic law.”
The Saudi government accuses Fagih of extremism and says he has strong ties to terrorists, a charge he denies.
The Saudi monarch wields absolute power. Political parties are banned, and the press is under government control.