SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Saudi Arabia mostly escaped the mass protests and violence of Arab Spring, but despite bans on demonstrations, Shiite Muslims in the eastern part of the kingdom have staged protests to demand political change. Independent producer Reese Erlich witnessed one protest in the town of Qatif, and he sent us this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

REESE ERLICH, BYLINE: It was pitch dark as our car entered downtown Qatif onto what protesters call Revolution Road. The army deploys armored vehicles at strategic locations and checkpoints are everywhere. Demonstrations are illegal in Saudi Arabia, but that doesn't intimidate the protestors of Qatif.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Chanting in foreign language)

ERLICH: Hundreds of mostly young people march peacefully demanding the release of a jailed leader. Women mass at the end of the protest and chant the loudest.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: (Chanting in foreign language)

ERLICH: One protester, who declines to use his name because he fears arrest, says the demonstrations continue in Qatif because residents face both general political repression and discrimination as Shia in this majority Sunni country.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Through Translator) As Shia we can't get certain jobs, such as in the military. We also face the same political repression as all Saudis. We live under an absolute monarchy that gives us no rights and steals the wealth of the country.

ERLICH: He says when demonstrations began two years ago, people demanded reforms from the Saudi royal family. Now, they demand its removal.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Through Translator) As a reaction to the increased repression, people now want the overthrow of the ruling family. I think the best form of government is constitutional monarchy like they have in Britain.

ERLICH: While many young people demand regime change, traditional opposition leaders in Qatif call for reform. Sheik Mohammed Hassan al Habib, a leading Shiite religious leader, advocates limited demands such as legalization of political parties and creation of an elected - not an appointed - parliament.

SHEIK MOHAMMED HASSAN AL HABIB: (Through Translator) Sunni and Shia leaders agree there should be reform from within the royal family. Some demonstrators call for toppling the regime but we're trying to guide them not to raise such slogans and to remain peaceful.

ERLICH: But the government treats all protests the same, whether they call for reform or a revolution. Major General Mansour al Turki is a spokesperson for the Ministry of Interior in Riyadh.

MAJOR GENERAL MANSOUR AL TURKI: Demonstrations in the kingdom are prohibited. We try to prevent such demonstrations. If you have actually any complaints, then you have actually to complain through the legal process.

ERLICH: Critics say that legal process is useless when the king has near absolute power.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Chanting in foreign language)

ERLICH: At the Qatif demonstration, the march remains peaceful. And on this night the police do not attack. Another protester, who asks for anonymity, says the mere fact they have been able to keep the protests alive for two years is a sign of strength.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Through Translator) The pressure from the people is growing. They are getting angrier and angrier.

ERLICH: Discontent remains strong among the Shia of eastern Saudi Arabia, but at least for the moment, their calls for democracy are not widely echoed in other parts of the country. For NPR News, I'm Reese Erlich.

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