Security services are on high alert across several countries in the Arab world as authorities seek to contain anti-government protests planned for the day.
Police have flooded the streets of Riyadh, the Saudi capital, looking to deter fresh demonstrations. A Facebook page calling for a ‘Day of Rage‘ on Friday has attracted more than 30,000 supporters in the kingdom.
Protests are strictly forbidden in Saudi Arabia, and scores of uniformed police patrolled the main squares in Riyadh, with helicopters buzzing overhead, significantly raising the security presence there.
Two activists said more than 200 protesters had rallied in the city of Hofuf, which is close to the eastern Ghawar oil field and major refinery installations.
The city has seen scattered protests in the last two weeks by minority Shias, who complain of discrimination in the face of the country’s dominant Sunni majority.
Saudi Arabia is the world’s top oil exporter, a major US ally which has guaranteed Western energy supplies for decades, and the calls for protests have put markets on edge.
“The fact the Saudi regime is making a big deal of this suggests that it may be a big deal … If the first kind of explicitly pro-democracy protests happen [on Friday] that sets a precedent and we’ll probably see more pro-democracy protests,” said Shadi Hamid, an analyst with the Brookings Centre in Doha.
“Even if it’s 200 or 300 that is still, by Saudi standards, a big deal and something to worry about.”
At least three people were injured on Thursday after police fired in the air to disperse several hundred protesters in the eastern oil-rich city of Qatif.
“As the procession in the heart of the city was about to finish, soldiers started shooting at the protesters, and three of them were wounded,” said a witness, requesting anonymity.
A spokesman for the country’s interior ministry spokesman said police had fired live rounds in the air after shots were fired from among the protesters.
In Kuwait, elite anti-riot police used tear gas to disperse hundreds of stateless Arab protesters who were
demanding citizenship and other rights.
“Stateless since 50 years, we demand citizenship,” read a huge banner in English as protesters chanted “we will not leave without a solution”.
There were other protests in Sulaibiya, southwest of Kuwait City, and in the oil-rich city of Al-Ahmadi, south of the capital.
Stateless Arabs, known locally as bidoons and estimated at more than 100,000, protested last month for three consecutive days until officials gave them assurances that their grievances would be addressed.
But parliament on Tuesday refused to debate a draft bill that would give them civil rights.
Thousands of opposition activists heading towards Bahrain’s royal court have been prevented from marching on the king’s palace.
Carrying Bahraini flags and flowers, the mainly Shia protesters began walking from the Aly area to Riffa, a district of Manama, the capital, where Sunnis and members of the royal family live.
Near a clocktower in Riffa, about 1,000 residents armed with clubs gathered to block the protesters’ advance.
More than 200 riot police armed with batons blocked off the road with barbed wire, persuading most protesters to go home.
Police pushed back a group of rock-throwing Sunnis who approached police lines and fired tear gas to disperse Shias
trying to get around the roadblock.
Medical sources said one person was seriously injured.
“The royal family has lots of palaces and houses here. We’re peaceful. We want to go to their house and ask for our rights,” said Ahmed Jaafar, as he set off from Aly. “Power should not be with one family, it should be with the people.”
Bahrain, home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, has been gripped by the worst unrest since the 1990s when protesters took to the streets last month, inspired by uprisings that unseated entrenched autocratic rulers in Egypt and Tunisia.
Seven people have been killed in clashes with security forces and thousands of the February 14 youth movement still occupy Pearl roundabout, a busy intersection in the capital.
Sectarian violence has begun to increase in the Gulf island where the majority of people are Shia Muslim but the ruling family is Sunni.
Tens of thousands of protesters marched in Yemen on Friday, drawing record crowds in Sanaa, the capital, to show Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president, his reform offers would not soften their demand for his immediate departure.
Yemenis flooded streets and alleys around Sanaa University in the biggest protest to hit the capital since demonstrations began in January.
Thousands of Saleh loyalists also crammed the capital’s Tahrir Square, carrying pictures of the veteran leader.
Hashem Ahelbarra, Al Jazeera’s correspondent in Sanaa, said there were reports that at least four people had been injured in clashes between the protesters and government loyalists.
Protests turned violent in the southern port city of Aden, where three people were wounded by gunfire and six overcome by tear gas as police tried to disperse thousands of marchers.
Unidentified armed men killed four soldiers on patrol east of Mukalla city in Hadhramaut province, in southeast Yemen.
Security source accused al-Qaeda operatives of being behind the attack.
A wave of unrest has weakened Saleh’s 32-year grip on his impoverished nation, with about 30 people killed since January.
In Iraq, hundreds of protesters are demanding jobs and better basic services, in the latest challenge to the government.
About 500 protesters turned up in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square on Friday, with a similar amount in the city of Fallujah west of the capital.
Deomonstrations were also reported in several other cities, including Sulaymaniyah in the north and Basra in the south.
Iraq’s government has been shaken by a string of rallies across the country since the beginning of February.