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UDPATE 1-Saudi activists eye protests, wait for new cabinet

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Mon, 28 Feb 2011 19:00 GMT
Author: (c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2011. Click For Restrictions. http://about.reuters.com/fulllegal.asp
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* Government monitors Internet to stifle protests

* Cabinet reshuffle could temper protest call

* Authorities and clerics view protests as taboo

(Adds grand mufti on women, paragraphs 19-20)

By Asma Alsharif

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia, Feb 28 (Reuters) - Democracy activists in Saudi Arabia say the government is closely monitoring social media to nip in the bud any protests inspired by uprisings that swept Arab countries, toppling leaders in Egypt and Tunisia.

Activists have set up Facebook pages calling for protests on March 11 and 20, with more than 17,000 supporters combined, but police managed to stifle two attempts to hold protests in the Red Sea city of Jeddah last month, highlighting the difficulties of such mobilisation in the conservative kingdom.

In one case, between 30 and 50 people were detained by police when they gathered on the street, witnesses said. In the second, security forces flooded the location of a protest advertised on Facebook, scaring off protesters.

"They are watching closely what people are saying on Facebook and Twitter," said Saudi blogger Ahmed al-Omran. "Obviously they are anxious as they are surrounded with unrest and want to make sure we don't catch the bug."

Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil producer, bans public protests and political parties. In 2004, Saudi security forces, carrying batons and shields thwarted protests in Riyadh and Jeddah called for by a Saudi dissident group in London.

Last week, King Abdullah, a close U.S. ally, ordered wage rises for Saudi citizens and other benefits on his return from three months abroad for medical treatment.

The handouts, valued at ${esc.dollar}37 billion, were an apparent attempt to insulate the kingdom from the wave of protests affecting Arab countries but activists want more than money.

There has been no sign that the kingdom will introduce elections to its advisory Shura Assembly, a quasi-parliament, or a new round of municipal council elections.

"They have been monitoring the Internet, Facebook and other sites for some time but now it demands more attention," said Mai Yamani, a Saudi analyst based in London. "Saudis are no different from their brothers and sisters in the region -- they are educated, connected and angry."

SECOND-CLASS STATUS

It is difficult to estimate how many Saudis could be prepared to take part in protests.

There are three main population centres in the vast Arabian Peninsula state where protests could emerge: Riyadh with a population of more than 4 million, Jeddah with a population of more than 2 million and the Shi'ite Muslim areas of the Eastern Province.

Shi'ites, who have complained of second-class status, are watching protests in neighbouring Bahrain, where Shi'ites are demanding democratic reforms.

About 60 percent of the native Saudi population of 18 million are believed to be aged under 30 and most have grown up in the information age which has raised awareness of rights among Arab protesters elsewhere and helped them organise.

Clerics, allowed wide powers in Saudi society, have traditionally said questioning the kingdom's rulers is taboo.

Activists say a widely anticipated cabinet reshuffle could help dampen Internet activism if it brings in new faces.

"All reformers are waiting for the long-awaited cabinet reshuffle," said Mahmoud Sabbagh, a newspaper columnist. "If it turns out to be just cosmetic, then my analysis is that reformers will regroup and escalate." In an open letter published on Sunday, about 100 Saudi intellectuals, activists and academics called on the king to launch major political reforms and allow citizens to have a greater say in ruling the country.

Their principal demand is elections to the Shura Assembly.

The grand mufti, Sheikh Abdulaziz Al al-Sheikh, the government's main authority on religious issues, said on his website on Monday he opposed women taking a role in political life.

"These demands must be reconsidered. Do they serve Islam? Will they bring the Islamic nation together?" he said.. (Additional reporting by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Andrew Hammond and Andrew Dobbie)

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