Troops open fire as Saudis brace for ‘day of rage’

Saudi troops have shot and wounded three Shi’ite protesters in the oil-rich Eastern Province while trying to disperse a protest calling for the release of prisoners, as the nation braced for another “day of rage” following Friday prayers.

The shooting happened when up to 800 protesters, all Shi’ite and including women, took to the streets of the city of Qatif to demand the release of nine Shi’ite prisoners, according to a witness who asked not to be named. “As the procession in the heart of the city was about to finish, soldiers started shooting at the protesters, and three of them were wounded,” the witness said.

He said the shooting continued for about 10 minutes while about 200 policemen were present.

Cyber activists have used Facebook to call for more protests overnight (AEDT), with one page calling for a “Saudi revolution” to begin on March 20. Activists are calling for political and economic reforms, jobs, freedom and women’s rights. Washington said it would closely monitor the unrest in Saudi Arabia.

“We will of course continue to monitor closely this particular situation,” said Ben Rhodes, a senior foreign policy adviser to President Barack Obama. “What we have said is that we are going to support a set of universal values in every country in the region.”

Life was normal in Riyadh yesterday, but there was a heightened police presence.

Last weekend, the Interior Ministry issued a stern reminder that any demonstration was illegal and warned activists that the security forces had been authorised to crack down on any protests.

The authorities last Sunday released Shi’ite cleric Sheik Tawfiq al-Aamer whose arrest last month provoked demonstrations. He had called for a constitutional monarchy in the kingdom, which is an absolute monarchy. Shi’ites, who are mainly concentrated in the Eastern Province, make up about 10 per cent of the Saudi population and complain of marginalisation in a country dominated by the puritanical Wahabi Sunni doctrine.

One of the most potent fears voiced by outsiders is that a Shi’ite rebellion in neighbouring Bahrain might spill across the 25km causeway connecting the two countries and into the heartland of Saudi oil production.

“Saudi Arabia has reached a critical stage in which it has to react to people’s demands effectively and swiftly,” said a Shi’ite businessman in the oasis district of al-Ahsa. “But it is very hard to predict what will happen in the next few weeks.

“Every country that saw a revolution in the region had a different trigger.”

Saudi Arabia sits on a quarter of global crude oil reserves and is the world’s largest oil exporter.

The US’s most important Arab ally has so far provided a bulwark of stability to world energy markets by raising its crude production levels to make up for Libya’s lost supply.

“The main focus remains on the Middle East crisis, as any potential protests for Friday’s day of rage in Saudi Arabia could make crude oil prices surge higher,” said Sucden analyst Myrto Sokou.

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