JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia -- A senior Saudi prince said in comments published on Sunday that loyal Saudis had foiled plans by "evil people" to stage protests.
Web activists had slated March 11 as the first day for mass protests around the country in favor of democratic government and a constitutional rather than absolute monarchy.
But a religious ruling banning demonstrations in the world's biggest oil exporter, and a heavy police crackdown in key cities, appeared to intimidate most who are interested in demanding more political rights.
"I congratulate King Abdullah and his crown prince Sultan for having these kind and loyal subjects," Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz, the king's half-brother, said in remarks published on the official news agency overnight.
"Some evil people wanted to spread chaos in the kingdom yesterday and called for demonstrations that have dishonorable goals," said the veteran security chief, whose ministry warned last week that protests were un-Islamic and illegal.
Inspired by mass protests in Tunisia and Egypt which resulted in the toppling of long-standing leaders Zine al Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, activists have signed petitions in favor of a constitutional monarchy.
Governance in the U.S. ally is dominated by the Saudi royal family. Senior princes occupy key government posts, political parties and protests are banned, and the country has an advisory parliamentary body whose members are appointed by the king.
The class of Sunni Muslim religious scholars, who have wide powers in society, uphold absolute obedience to the ruler.
The Eastern Province, where most Saudi oil fields are located, was the only region that saw protests on Friday -- the latest in a series of demonstrations there in recent weeks.
They are demanding the release of prisoners held for years without trial. Shi'ite community leaders met King Abdullah and the governor of the Eastern Province last week to seek the release of some 26 people detained in protests.
Shi'ites also complain of discrimination in a country that rules by Sunni sharia law. The government denies this.
Three protesters were injured as police fired shots in the air during a Shi'ite protest on March 10.
The Shi'ite minority in Saudi Arabia is thought to represent 10-15 percent of the country's 27 million people.
Weeks of protests by majority Shi'ites in neighboring Bahrain have inspired their Saudi co-religionists.
Reporting by Asma Alsharif, editing by Myra MacDonald
March 13, 2011, Reuters