Turmoil in Eastern Saudi Arabia

by Giorgio Cafiero and Alex Stout

The January 2 execution of Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, a popular Shi’ite cleric from Awamiya in eastern Saudi Arabia, set off angry protests worldwide. From Michigan to London, and from Bahrain to Kashmir, Shi’ite Muslims took to the streets on several continents to condemn the Saudi authorities who beheaded al-Nimr after finding the cleric guilty of “breaking allegiance with the ruler” and a handful of other alleged crimes.

Al-Nimr—like many Saudi Shi’ites—refused to recognize Al Saud’s legitimacy. Not only did al-Nimr speak out against Saudi rulers, whom he saw as corrupt and tyrannical, but the cleric also railed against Riyadh’s regional allies such as Bahrain, Egypt, and Yemen. Al-Nimr advocated nonviolent democratic reform, women’s rights, and an end to discrimination against Saudi Shi’ites in Saudi Arabia. Since his execution, Shi’ite protests have resumed in the kingdom’s Eastern Province (EP).

By executing al-Nimr, however, Riyadh communicated to the nation’s Shi’ites that it will consider political dissent an act of terrorism. Given Saudi Arabia’s history of not executing Shi’ite clerics for political activism in the EP, analysts contend that al-Nimr’s killing indicates the kingdom’s more hardline approach to Iran and Saudi Arabia’s Shi’ite opposition since King Salman took over from his predecessor 14 months ago. Indeed, it was symbolic how Saudi authorities executed al-Nimr and three other Shi’ite dissidents along with 43 Sunnis allegedly linked to al-Qaeda after trying the cleric in the kingdom’s Special Criminal Court, which is reserved for terrorism cases.

Historical Context

When Saudi Wahhabis waged their military conquests of the Arabian Peninsula throughout the 18th and 19th centuries they carried out atrocities against the Shi’ites under the banner of ridding the land of “apostates.” When the founder of the kingdom, King Abdulaziz Al Saud, led an anti-Ottoman uprising in the 1910s his forces massacred Shi’ites within the same ideological context.

Ever since the kingdom’s official founding in 1932, the authorities have consigned Shi’ites, who constitute 10-15 percent of Saudi Arabia’s population and mainly reside in the EP, to second-class citizenship. Saudi rulers discriminate against Shi’ites in educational and employment spheres, and restrict their freedom of religion. Prior to the Iranian Revolution of 1979 many Saudi Shi’ites were apolitical. Those involved in politics generally embraced Arab nationalist ideologies such as Nasserism and Ba’athism, which many foreign Arab workers brought into the EP throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

Sectarian tension in the EP escalated after the Iranian Revolution. Saudi officials feared that Ayatollah Khomeini’s message to Arab Shi’ites to rise up against their Western-backed Sunni rulers would resonate among Saudi Shi’ites. As Riyadh provided Saddam with billions in petrodollars throughout his bloody eight-year war with Iran, many Saudi Shi’ites did take inspiration from Khomeini. Tens of thousands united under the Organization of Islamic Revolution in the Arabian Peninsula (IRO), which called for ending discrimination against Shi’ites in the kingdom, cutting off oil exports to the U.S., and supporting Khomeini’s revolution. Iran’s revolutionary regime fanned the flames by sending radio broadcasts and cassette tapes into the EP, which called on Saudi Shi’ites to overthrow Al Saud. The Hajj of 1987 only made matters worse. Saudi security forces killed hundreds of Iranian pilgrims who held an anti-U.S./anti-Israel rally in Mecca, which led to Iranians rampaging the Saudi and Kuwaiti embassies in Tehran, and King Fahd severing diplomatic relations with Iran in April 1988.

In 1987, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) established Ansar Khat al-Imam (a.k.a. Saudi Hezbollah), a radical Shi’ite militia based in the EP, which carried out numerous terrorist attacks in the kingdom including ones against a gas plant in August 1987 and petrochemical installations in March 1988. The group was also responsible for waging acts of terrorism that targeted Saudi officials in Pakistan, Thailand, and Turkey between October 1988 and January 1989. Throughout this period, Saudi authorities waged a campaign of harsh oppression and executed several Saudi Hezbollah members in public in September 1988 after arresting scores of suspected affiliates.

Yet Saudi-Iranian tensions cooled in the aftermath of Ayatollah Khomeini’s death in 1989 and Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. In March 1991, Oman helped Riyadh and Tehran negotiate a resumption of diplomatic relations. During this period, Tehran instructed Saudi Hezbollah to tamp down its militancy.

At this juncture, many Saudi Shi’ites reached different conclusions about politics, largely due to Iran’s failure to score a decisive victory over Iraq. By the early 1990s, a growing number who joined IRO in the 1980s conceded that the Iranian revolution was unlikely to be exported to eastern Saudi Arabia. Many in the movement judged that it was most strategic to abandon revolutionary agendas and negotiate with their rulers in Riyadh. In 1993, the kingdom granted amnesty to Shi’ite opposition activists: if they ended public displays of dissent, the kingdom would improve their political, social, and economic conditions. From 1993 to the “Arab Spring” uprising of 2011, tensions in the EP cooled considerably.

Nonetheless, after uprisings erupted across Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Syria, and Yemen in 2011, the winds of political and social change blew into Saudi Arabia’s EP. On March 10, 2011, hundreds of Shi’ites disobeyed the ban on street protests in their “Day of Rage.” Yet these Shi’ite protestors were not calling for overthrowing Al Saud under the banner of any foreign government’s ideological and revolutionary agenda. Instead, their demands entailed the release of political prisoners and greater Shi’ite representation in the kingdom’s political arena. The “Day of Rage” protestors also expressed solidarity with the Shi’ite-led “Arab Spring” movement in Bahrain.

Saudi rulers, maintaining that the Shi’ite protestors were pawns of Iran, quickly responded with vows to crackdown on political activism with an “iron fist.” The religious establishment also weighed in. Speaking to worshippers at a mosque in the Saudi capital, Sheikh Abdel Aziz Alasheikh responded, “Islam strictly prohibits protests in the kingdom because the ruler here rules by God’s will.” Between March 2011 and August 2012, Riyadh’s crackdown in the EP killed over 20, injured several dozen, and detained over 1,000 others, including 24 children.

Shi’ites, Saudi Security, and Islamic State Clash

Al Saud’s alliance with the Wahhabi religious establishment has emphasized anti-Shi’itsm as a key pillar of the ruling political order’s ideology. Anti-Shi’ite incitement in the form of Saudi-based television channels and bigoted remarks from the highest ranking members of the kingdom’s Wahhabi clergy has spread anti-Shi’ite (and anti-Christian as well as anti-Jewish) attitudes across the greater Muslim world. In Toby Mathiessen’s words, “Saudi recruits for al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group are often motivated by a desire to contain Shi’ism and stem Iranian influence in the region—strategic objectives that Saudi media perpetuates ad infinitum.”

As early as November 2014, terror cells affiliated with the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) began waging suicide attacks in Saudi Arabia’s EP, targeting Shi’ites and the state’s security forces. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, caliph of the so-called Islamic State, has called on Saudi Sunnis to commit themselves to toppling Al Saud and ridding the Arabian Peninsula of Shi’ite Muslims. IS accuses the Saudi kingdom of becoming “soft” on Iranian/Shi’ite influence. Analysts concur that the execution of al-Nimr alongside several dozen Sunni Islamist extremists was aimed at preventing IS from exploiting the mass execution of only Sunni Muslims in the kingdom for its own propaganda narrative.

Following the execution of al-Nimr, protests in the Qatif region reached levels far surpassing the “Arab Spring” demonstrations of 2011. On January 5, 2016, three days after the cleric’s execution, protestors set fire to a Saudi Aramco bus. Should such events become commonplace, escalating violence between Saudi security forces and members of the Shi’ite opposition could have grave implications for global energy markets. The EP is home to virtually all of the kingdom’s oil reserves, equivalent to one-fifth of global supply.

One State How Much Longer?

A number of analysts argue that the Saudi state is highly fragile and vulnerable to collapse. In September 2013, Middle East expert Robin Wright explained that “the kingdom [of Saudi Arabia] seems physically secured in glass high-rises and eight-lane highways, but it still has disparate cultures, distinct tribal identities and tensions between a Sunni majority and a Shi’ite minority, notably in the oil-rich east.” Wright laid out a potential scenario in which Saudi Arabia divides into five smaller regions: North Arabia, Western Arabia, South Arabia, Wahhabistan, and Eastern Arabia.

Last month, Sarah Chayes and Alex de Waal argued, “It’s past time U.S. decision-makers began planning for the collapse of the Saudi kingdom.” Chayes and Waal asserted that the dissatisfaction with rulers in Riyadh, primarily within the kingdom’s Shi’ite minority, could increase the Saudi government’s “loyalty price index” until “the monarchy could face political insolvency.” Last September, Nafeez Ahmed wrote that “Saudi Arabia is on the brink of a perfect storm of interconnected challenges that, if history is anything to judge by, will be the monarchy’s undoing well within the next decade.”

The threats to the stability of the Saudi state range from the quagmire in Yemen and the nation’s dismal economic conditions stemming from low oil prices to growing Sunni fundamentalist terrorism and demographic and housing crises. Failure to cool sectarian temperatures in the EP threatens to further crack a deeply flawed and highly authoritarian political system at a time when numerous issues threaten the Saudi state’s long-term viability.

Photo: Protest in Qatif in 2012.

Giorgio Cafiero

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. In addition to LobeLog, he also writes for The National Interest, Middle East Institute, and Al Monitor. From 2014-2015, Cafiero was an analyst at Kroll, an investigative due diligence consultancy. He received an M.A. in International Relations from the University of San Diego.


One Comment

  1. Great article!
    The catch 22 has begun in Saudi Arabia! The greater internal political pressures by having more social unrests in ESA the closer Wahabbies regime gets to Israel! SA security apparatus has been learning from the Israeli security personnel to put down any unrest swiftly and quickly! As it was demonstrated in 2015 when the SA security killed hundreds of pilgrims and hundreds are still missing! It is very interesting that the Wahabbbies call Shias as “apostates” and yet they are allowing the Israelis to enter the most sacred land of Islam to cover their own rear ends and for their survival. As the other Islamic nations begin to recognizing what the Wahabbbies are up to with creating and supporting Wahabbie terrorists such as Al-Qaida and ISIS the worse it gets for the regime in SA. Specially if the regime gets more and more in cahoots with Israel thinking that their common enemy is Iran and more importantly is Shiaism!

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