RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia has ordered the arrest of 23 Shi'ite Muslims in the kingdom's Eastern Province who it says were responsible for unrest that has led to shootings and protests in recent weeks, the Interior Ministry said on Monday.
The Sunni-ruled kingdom accused the wanted men of serving the agenda of a foreign power, usually a reference to its Shi'ite rival Iran which Riyadh sees as fomenting sectarian unrest to destabilise the region.
"We do have evidence of a relationship with somebody else abroad," Interior Ministry spokesman Major General Mansour Turki told a news conference. "Now how much, or what kind of relationship and how strong that relationship, this still has to be investigated and that is what we want these people for."
Tensions between Riyadh and Tehran have risen in recent months, since the Arab uprisings altered the Middle East's balance of power and brought sectarian clashes to Saudi Arabia and its close neighbour Bahrain.
Last week, an Iranian general said the Islamic Republic might respond to new sanctions over its nuclear programme by closing the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow waterway that transports most Gulf crude, including that produced by Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil exporter.
The interior ministry, announcing the arrest orders in a statement read on state television, apparently tried to calm sectarian tensions by praising as "honourable" the people of Eastern Province, heart of the kingdom's oil wealth and home to most Saudi Shi'ites.
The statement called on the wanted men to turn themselves in, and Turki said the arrest order had been issued after they had failed to report when summoned for questioning.
Some of them had criminal records, held illicit weapons, obstructed traffic and tried to incite unrest, the statement said. This showed there were coordinated efforts to provoke unrest "and to force citizens to take part in pointless confrontations," Turki said.
In November four people were killed in the province's Qatif oasis area when clashes broke out near police checkpoints and at a funeral.
Eastern Province Shi'ite activists said aggressive policing at checkpoints and the arrest of some community members had provoked the trouble.
The Saudi government blamed an unnamed foreign power for the unrest and officials have privately pointed at Iran, which they accuse of stirring sectarian violence across the Middle East.
The only significant protests to hit Saudi Arabia, the Middle East's largest economy, during the Arab uprisings were among Shi'ites in Eastern Province, where small demonstrations persisted throughout 2011.
In October the United States accused Iran of backing an alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington.
Iran denies the charges and last month sent its intelligence minister to Riyadh to try to defuse tensions.
Saudi Shi'ites complain of widespread discrimination, which they say prevents them from gaining good government jobs, reduces state investment in their neighbourhoods and leads to closures of Shi'ite centres of worship.
The Saudi government denies charges of discrimination.
The last official Saudi figures showed there were fewer than one million Shi'ites in Eastern Province out of a total 3 million people, but a 2006 Human Rights Watch report put the number of Shi'ites there at 2 million and a 2008 U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks estimated the Shi'ite population at 1.5 million.
(Reporting By Angus McDowall and Joseph Logan; editing by Tim Pearce)