A Saudi court has sentenced to death the "chief strategist" of a wave of al-Qaeda violence that erupted in the kingdom in 2003, a decade after his reported arrest.

Faris al-Zahrani had been in custody ever since his detention near the Yemeni border in 2004, the Al-Madina newspaper reported on its website.

The official Saudi Press Agency gave neither his name nor the date of his arrest in the southwestern city of Abha, saying only that he had shown no remorse while in custody.

The trial, in which 16 co-defendants were also sentenced to prison terms of up to 20 years, was the latest in a series of prosecutions that begun in July 2011 for alleged offences committed during the peak of al-Qaeda violence in the oil kingpin between 2003 and 2006.

Saudi authorities had previously focused on efforts to reform those detained for "deviating" from officially sanctioned Islam by preaching violence, boasting of successful results from its well-funded rehabilitation centres.

Throughout his trial, the chief defendant continued to defy the authority of the state and to defend the killing of security personnel as an act justified by his faith, SPA said.

He showed every sign that if released he would continue to propagate his ideas, it added.

"He was detained in a public park in Abha in the possession of weapons that he intended to use to kill policemen or any civilian who got in his way," it said of his original arrest, which dealt a heavy blow to the armed group.

The co-accused, whose arrest dates were also not specified, were convicted of charges including "arms possession, participation in acts of terror, forging of official documents and assisting terrorists".

Al-Qaeda's now slain leader Osama bin Laden was Saudi-born and 15 of the 19 perpetrators of the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States were Saudis.

Saudi authorities launched a massive crackdown on the network over the past decade that prompted many of its fighters to shift base to neighbouring Yemen.

Source: AFP