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Last Updated: Friday, 24 October, 2003, 13:16 GMT 14:16 UK
Saudis clamp down on protests
By Roger Hardy
BBC Middle East analyst

Reports say about 70 people were arrested in the Saudi city of Jeddah and two other cities after attempts to hold demonstrations were thwarted by the police on Thursday.

Saudi men flee police during the rally earlier this month
Protests are virtually unknown in Saudi Arabia
A London-based opposition group had called for protests in nine Saudi cities, but a heavy police presence prevented any serious demonstrations from materialising.

Friday's Saudi newspapers mention the thwarted demonstrations, but only to downplay them.

They describe the people who took to the streets of Jeddah and other cities as, for the most part, curious bystanders rather than demonstrators.

The attempt by Saad al-Faqih - the London-based Saudi dissident - to orchestrate large-scale demonstrations was, they say, a failure.

Growing unrest

There is some truth in this, but it is not the whole story.

It looks as if Dr Al-Faqih was trying to build on his success last week, when he encouraged Saudis to gather in the heart of the capital Riyadh to call for political reform - and several hundred responded.

This week he may have been over-ambitious.

Crown Prince Abdullah, Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler
Pressure is great on the Gulf monarchy to reform
But what is equally clear from conversations with a number of Saudis is that many more would have taken part in Thursday's protests, but were deterred by the massive police presence.

One prominent Saudi - a technocrat committed to far-reaching political and economic reform - told the BBC that Dr Al-Faqih had nothing to offer but a narrow, ultra-conservative agenda.

But he acknowledged that, with hundreds of thousands of Saudis now suffering from unemployment and economic hardship, protest was inevitable.

Referring to the government's commitment to gradual reform, he commented: "Time may no longer be on our side."

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