RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia flogged a group of teenagers after a rare riot in the eastern region of the Islamic kingdom in which shops and restaurants were ransacked, a witness and local newspapers said on Tuesday.
Human rights activists and liberals condemned Monday's flogging which Saudi newspapers said happened after groups of young people smashed windows of restaurants and shops in Khobar on Saudi national day last week.
Analysts and diplomats say the case shows the challenge for the government to offer social space for a young population in one of the most conservative states and birthplace of Islam.
Newspapers such as al-Hayat and al-Watan said some 20 teenagers had received at least 30 lashes each. They showed pictures of police readying a square for the public lashings.
"The flogging was carried out last night in public," said a local journalist who witnessed it. Papers said some of the 20 youths were flogged in nearby Dammam.
A police spokesman in the eastern province declined to comment, saying he was not authorised to talk to foreign media. The interior ministry also declined to comment.
The Eastern Province is home to most of the country's massive oil wealth. The bulk of Saudi Arabia's Shi'ite minority, which has long complained of discrimination, also lives there.
PUBLIC PROTESTS BANNED
The staunch U.S. ally is a monarchy which has no parliament and where public protests are banned. The Al Saud family rules with clerics who apply an austere version of Sunni Islam.
King Abdullah has promoted some social reforms in the major oil exporter since taking office in 2005 but diplomats say his room for manoeuvre due to resistance of clerics and princes.
"This terrible event reflects the need to allow more space for the youth in terms of sport clubs, movie theatres and recreation facilities," said columnist Abdullah al-Alami who lives in Khobar.
Restaurants, movie theatres and concerts are banned in the Gulf Arab state, while many restaurants and sometimes even shopping malls cater to families only, especially on holidays.
Religious police roam streets to make sure no unrelated men and women mix.
"Young males are shunted to the street, with nothing to do and no place to go," former U.S. diplomat John Burgess said in his Saudi blog "Crossroads Arabia".
Papers gave different accounts of the incident, with some saying teenagers targeted Western brands thinking they had connections with Israel. Others quoted teenagers as saying they urged authorities to give more attention to young people with little to do and few places to go in Saudi society.
Saudi Arabia's large young population is a pull for investors, along with the country's strong consumer spending, but analysts say finding jobs and housing for the 18 million population poses a serious challenge.
Al Qaeda militants launched a failed campaign against the state in 2003, while most of the hijackers responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks were Saudis.
(Additional reporting by Asma Alsharif and Souhail Karam; Editing by Dominic Evans)
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