Saudi pro-democracy group plans first sit-in

A Saudi pro-democracy group is planning the kingdom's first sit-in protest this month to demand radical political reforms, a constitution and elections, its leaders said Friday.

The gathering is unlikely to be approved as public protests are almost unheard of in Saudi Arabia, partly because the government actively prevents them.

Mohammad Alqahtani, the head of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, said the group has asked the Interior Ministry for permission to hold a peaceful sit-in on Dec. 23 in the capital, Riyadh.

"We want to express our opinions and make our demands in a peaceful and civilized way," Alqahtani, a professor of economics, said over the telephone from Riyadh.

He said the group will go on with its plan even if a permission is denied. "We are citizens but with no rights whatsoever," Alqahtani added.

The group's demands include curtailing privileges of members of the Saudi royal family, fighting corruption and nepotism, and creating an independent judiciary.

In a statement posted on its website, the group said it also demands equal job opportunities, better health care and education, and social benefits. Among its key demands is election of a prime minister, provincial governors and other top government officials.

"There is no dignity of a nation without the dignity of its members, and we want every citizen to raise his head, with nothing to fear but God," said the statement.

Saudi authorities usually deal harshly with opposition but in recent years liberal-minded figures have been petitioning King Abdullah for reforms.

In September 2008, hundreds gathered in front of an electricity station in the northwestern town of Qubba to protest a power outage but were immediately dispersed. A small group of women who in 1990 drove through Riyadh to protest the ban on women drivers were promptly arrested and some were later suspended from their jobs as punishment.

Last week, police arrested an editor of a magazine a few days after he warned of a possible power struggle within the royal family because of the poor health of the king and crown prince.

Abdullah has been encouraging change in the oil-rich kingdom since becoming crown prince in 1982, and has intensified his efforts since assuming the throne in 2005. But the establishment remains divided on how far reforms should go.

Many Saudis have been expressing concern about the possibility of a fierce power struggle as the current generation of princes — all sons of Saudi Arabia's founder King Abdul-Aziz Al Saud — are mostly in their 70s and 80s.

Abdullah, 86, is currently in New York recuperating after two back surgeries, while the next in line for the throne — his 85-year-old half brother Crown Prince Sultan — is also ailing, though nominally in charge in Saudi Arabia in the king's absence and after spending more than a year recovering from his own medical treatment.