News of arrests surprises Saudis

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THE admission this week by the Saudi Arabian authorities that 110 'agitators' had been arrested for 'plotting to cause public disorder and riots' came as a surprise to Saudi Ministry of Information officials, and to Arab diplomats and journalists.

Coming a few days after a London-based opposition group's claims of more than 1,000 arrests and widespread torture in Saudi Arabia, it seemed to overturn instructions given to Arab journalists by ministry officials.

Sources in Jeddah say the hardline Interior Minister, Prince Nayef, entrusted with the security of the realm by his brother, King Fahd, used his unique position as the chief of the Supreme Council for Press and Information to issue the communique before telling the Minister of Information Ali el-Shaaer, who was as surprised by the news as Arab journalists on his payroll.

Diplomats in Saudi Arabia confirm that since the end of haj in June, there have been angry protests and riots in a number of mosques, led by hardline Islamic fundamentalists such as Sheikh Salman bin Fahd Al-Awda and Sheikh Sefr Abdul- Rahaman el-Hawali. These two were arrested and accused of inciting people to riot by preaching contrary to the guidelines laid down by the Supreme Council Of Clergymen - meaning the strict Wahabbi version of Islam.

The disturbances come at a time when the King's health is reported to be deteriorating and he is seldom in his office. Representatives of many contractors, Western as well as Middle Eastern, whose invoices have not been paid for over a year, wait for days to attend a majlis to petition the King. But they are only permitted to listen to few greetings and the traditional Inshallah (God willing) promise. Many have stopped providing their services.

In Washington, the State Department said this week it had serious concerns about human rights in Saudi Arabia.