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Protests in Saudi Arabia 'not political,' official says

From Mohammed Jamjoom, CNN
Saudi Arabian Shiites in Bahrain call for the release of Shiite prisoners.
Saudi Arabian Shiites in Bahrain call for the release of Shiite prisoners.
  • NEW: Government downplays the protests
  • The focus of Friday's protest is a Shiite prayer leader arrested last week
  • Hundreds of protesters Thursday also called for the release of Shiite prisoners
  • Analysts believe protests in Bahrain could spill over into Saudi Arabia

(CNN) -- The Saudi government on Saturday downplayed protests in the Eastern Province the day before, saying the people weren't calling for a regime change.

"The protests that took place in the Eastern Province were small and were not political in nature," a Saudi government official told CNN. The protesters weren't calling for regime change, they were asking for more jobs and calling for release of prisoners they feel were imprisoned unjustly."

The official, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said Friday's protest was not worrisome. "We don't feel they will spread throughout the kingdom or become bigger in nature," he said.

Demonstrators who protested in Eastern Province were demanding the release of Shiite prisoners they feel are being held without cause.

An outspoken Shiite prayer leader who demonstrators say was arrested last Friday was a focal point of the "day of rage" protest, said Ibrahim al-Mugaiteeb, president of the Human Rights First Society.

Sheikh Tawfeeq Al-Amer was arrested Friday after a sermon stating that Saudi Arabia should become a constitutional monarchy, al-Mugaiteeb said.

The protest comes on the heels of two similar demonstrations held in the province Thursday, al-Mugaiteeb said, when about 200 protesters in the city of Qatif and 100 protesters in the city of Awamiyya called for the release of Shiite prisoners.

Al-Mugaiteeb said authorities arrested 22 people who participated in Thursday's protest in Qatif.

"We deplore this action by the Saudi security forces," he said.

Another protest took place in Riyadh after Friday prayer, according to two Saudi activists. The sources asked not to be identified because of concerns for their safety.

According to the activists, as many as 40 anti-government demonstrators gathered outside Al-Rajhi Mosque for a short protest. At least one man involved in organizing the protest was arrested by Saudi police, the activists said.

The activists said the protesters attracted a crowd of worshipers leaving the mosque. Some of the protesters carried signs showing a map of Saudi Arabia that did not contain the words "Kingdom of Saudi Arabia," a clear affront to the Saudi royal family.

The government official told CNN that he was not aware of any protests or arrests in Riyad.

When asked about the various rights groups in the Kingdom who have been calling for the creation of a constitutional monarchy over the course of the past 2 weeks, the government official on Saturday said, "Yes, there are groups here asking for more rights, calling for constitutional reforms, and that is their right to do so. King Abdullah has always encouraged a national dialogue and continues to do so.

The official insisted that the king "is doing all he can to improve things for Saudis.:

"But in Saudi Arabia -- it's not like other countries -- we don't have or allow protests here. If people have a grievance, they can go and address it with the governors of their provinces or they can go to the Royal Court and address grievances directly there."

Saudi Arabia has cracked down on protests in the past.

Shiites are a minority in Saudi Arabia. They live primarily in the Eastern Province -- where many major oil companies operate.

The protests come as sectarian violence between Shiites and Sunnis flares in neighboring Bahrain.

Analysts believe protests in Bahrain could spill over into Saudi Arabia's oil fields, located mostly in Shiite provinces.

After three months abroad for medical treatment, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah returned home late last month to a Middle East shaken by unrest, and announced a series of sweeping measures aimed at relieving economic hardship and meeting with Bahrain's beleaguered monarch.

The Saudi government released three Shiite political prisoners ahead of the king's return.