Saudi Forces Out In Force To Stop 'Day Of Rage'

In Saudi Arabia, protests are expected against the government after Friday prayers. The Saudi government has banned all kinds of public demonstrations. The scale of Friday's demonstrations, as well as the government's response, will be closely watched.

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ARI SHAPIRO, host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Steve Inskeep is in Cairo, and we'll be hearing from him in a few minutes, about a romance between a Muslim girl and a Christian boy that led to deadly violence in Egypt.

First, to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which during this turmoil in the Middle East, has so far avoided large protests. Today, though, critics of the regime are calling for a Day of Rage, and Saudi authorities are out in force to stop it.

NPR's Frank Langfitt is on the streets of the Saudi capital, Riyadh.

And Frank, what does it look like out there around you?

FRANK LANGFITT: Well, downtown is practically on lockdown right now. There are helicopters flying overhead. You can hear in the background, there are prayers at a nearby mosque. And actually, I was out on the streets a moment ago, and the hotel people pulled me back in, said don't stand out there. State security could come by and just grab you.

As I've been driving around downtown, there are police cars every block, riot vans, jersey barriers, barbed wire, clusters of three and - two and three dozen cops. I had to go through a checkpoint at one point to get back here.

The government's been sending text message to citizens telling them to stay off the streets. And it's clear that they're sort of poised for a showdown. Frankly, I'm not sure how someone pulls off a protest under these sort of, you know, really strong conditions.

MONTAGNE: And, Frank, there were demonstrators last night in the eastern part of Saudi Arabia, reports of police shootings. What more do we know about that?

LANGFITT: Well, we got some videos, actually, out of the city of Qatif. And there were - maybe several hundred protestors calling for the release of other prisoners that had been taken by the government, I think, quite some time ago. They were waving flags. They were saying peaceful, peaceful. And then, as you watch videos, you hear what sounds like gunfire.

Now, the government says police were shooting over the heads of protestors. But there were at least three injured, including a cop. Now, the government is also saying that the protestors there attacked police.

The protestors there are Shia. This is the eastern part of the country where the oil fields are. Of course, Saudi Arabia, the largest oil exporter in the world. And the Shia there complain about longstanding discrimination by the majority Sunnis here in Saudi Arabia.

Earlier this week, the government said it would not tolerate protests. And a source that we were in touch with in Qatif said, you know, he thought the shooting yesterday was basically a warning to the rest of country to stay indoors today.

MONTAGNE: Well, tell us what you can about the part of Saudi Arabia - you're in the capital, Riyadh. What are people there saying they want out of these protests?

LANGFITT: Well, generally, the opposition, their demands are similar to what we've seen across the Middle East in recent weeks: They want an open political system in particular here, a constitutional monarchy and elections. But keep in mind, the opposition here is very fragmented. For the Shia, it's religious discrimination. Women are looking for more basic rights.

But this is a different situation than some of the other Middle Eastern countries we've been following. This is a kingdom, an absolute monarchy, and all power flows from King Abdullah, who's actually quite popular. So people generally think the royal family is in a pretty strong position right now.

MONTAGNE: So what do ordinary Saudis think of all of this, the call for demonstrations and protests? I mean, are they likely to turn out today in the streets of Riyadh?

LANGFITT: I'd be surprised. I mean, they're nervous and even frightened. I was at an upscale mall yesterday chatting with people, and they were very cautious, did not want to talk politics. I mean, one told me point-blank yesterday, just stay inside your hotel and drink coffee. Don't go out. Another was just too concerned to talk at all. He said, you know, one day you're here. But if you talk, the next day, you might not be.

So I think people here are very anxious and very careful. And certainly, when you see what's going on downtown on the streets, you can understand why lots of people just wouldn't go out.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt speaking to us from Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia.

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