Riyadh (AsiaNews/Agencies) - Saudi security forces have opened fire against demonstrators after the latter took to the streets in Qatif (Al-Sharqiyya or Eastern Province) to demand democratic reforms and the release of political prisoners.
With hundreds of people invading city streets, shouting slogans and setting tyres on fire, anti-riot police responded firing rubber bullets to disperse the crowd.
Scores were wounded and dozens were arrested, including Mohammed al-Shakouri, described by the Interior Ministry as a wanted fugitive because he was among 23 men named as suspects in connection with the January disturbances in the Eastern Province.
The authorities accused demonstrators of possessing illegal weapons, opening fire on the public and police as well as serving "foreign agendas" to overthrow the established order.
The Qatif demonstration was organised to demand the release of political prisoners, including Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr.
The protests that have intensified in recent days pit the Shia minority, which is concentrated in oil-rich eastern Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi ruling family, which is Sunni and Wahhabi.
The start of protests dates back to March 2011. They broke out in the wake of unrest in Bahrain, a small Gulf state with a Shia majority ruled by a Sunni royal family. Eventually, Saudi troops and other Gulf forces were brought in to quell the disturbances, which they did with loss of life.
As AsiaNews noted in an article last year, the intervention of Saudi Arabia and Qatar effectively snuffed out the Arab spring, the movement of popular protests that sought to change the societies of North Africa and the Middle East.
The movement's failure is thus not due to religious fundamentalism, but to the strength of a political power that "submits" religion to its rule, said Prof Madawi al-Rasheed of King's College London.
At present, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are the main Arab backers of the war against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, finding moral and material support among extremist Muslim groups fighting the Alawi-controlled regime in Damascus.