Online Calls Increase For Protests In Saudi Arabia

Since Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah arrived home from months of medical treatment, three online petitions have appeared. The petitions, which have been signed by thousands of Saudis, call for an elected parliament, an end to corruption and a chance for citizens to participate in decision making.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Let's go next to a country that is relatively quiet but also nervous. For 12 straight days, the stock market has fallen in Saudi Arabia. The price of oil is rising. This is not because of any mass protest against the rulers of the giant oil producer. In fact, there are no mass protests, but there is an Internet call for protest on March 11th - a little more than a week from now.

NPR's Deborah Amos is on the line from the Saudi capital, Riyadh.

Hi, Deb.

DEBORAH AMOS: Hi. Good morning.

INSKEEP: It's interesting that these calls for protest would come after the Saudi King Abdullah announced he was handing out $35 billion in social programs and other grants.

AMOS: Indeed. And it shows you that money is not enough. The petitions are much more important here than the calls for protests. There are three of them. All of them are well thought out sets of political demands. Towards the state of rights and institutions is one, and that demands an elected parliament instead of an appointed one, calls for curbs on corruption, which is particularly rampant in the royal family, and it sets out conditions for government accountability. Two thousand Saudis have signed their name to it.

I was sitting with a blogger reading this site and he said that the government had blocked it but people were getting around that block and still signing their names.

There's been a third one, called a Declaration of National Reform. This one was written by known liberals in the kingdom. And it sets out a 12-point plan and it calls for a constitutional monarchy. This is where the people are the source of power. And it warned the government that they have to reform before it's too late.

They said it was a time when there's a widening gap between the state and society, especially among the young. So now we have three that essentially covers almost every group in the country.

INSKEEP: Well, now, why are these petitions more important in Saudi Arabia in that context than any mass protests that might be coming?

AMOS: Well, for one thing, they're unprecedented. Petitions are a legal way to express discontent. There's a tradition here of bringing petitions to the king. You do that individually. Now there are thousands of Saudis signing these petitions online, and for the first time these demands have united all segments of society - the liberals, the conservatives, the Islamists, the Sunnis, and the Shiites.

The other thing that's interesting about the petitions - it's a national political science class. Saudis can compare and contrast, 'cause there are some differences, but there's mostly agreement on the big issues like elections and that people should have a say in the way that oil money is spent.

So the Saudi reformers have been talking about this; now you have thousands of people calling out the king. And it undermines a basic assumption in the Gulf that the oil exporters could spread wealth internally and that would protect them. Money is not enough.

INSKEEP: Well, how can the people who want change in Saudi Arabia force that change on the king?

AMOS: Well, they are still asking. You know, we started this conversation talking about this Internet call. It's a day of rage in Saudi Arabia on the Web on March 11. But the prospects for that aren't very likely, because I've been talking to a lot of Saudis about this, and they say we don't know who that is. It is an anonymous call so nobody knows who they're going out with.

And there many people here, human rights activists, who say Saudis aren't ready yet to go out on the street. This is all new, this kind of politics. And Saudis don't know each other - there's no organizing permitted. So you have no civil(ph) society, no town hall meetings, nothing like that.

Now, the younger generation, they're talking to each other on the Internet, and that's made a huge difference. You can meet people outside of your family circle.

Now, there is one group that could take protests to the street and there's been some small demonstrations in the past couple of weeks, and that is the family of political prisoners. These are bloggers and activists who've been arrested for criticizing the royal family. There was a Shiite cleric who was arrested, and this is a much more volatile group of people.

INSKEEP: So you say that for most people at this moment they are asking the king for changes rather than demanding them. Is there any sign the king hears them?

AMOS: Well, that's the $64 billion question in Saudi money terms. Some of the reformers have been contacted by senior princes. They want to talk about reform. Some senior princes have been dismissive of reforms, according to the Saudis who have been in those meetings. But these subtle protests here are serious. It is a call on a very aging leadership, hoping that they hear the call, even though it all, for now, remains mostly on the Web.

INSKEEP: NPR's Deborah Amos is in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Deb, thanks very much.

AMOS: Thank you.

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