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Saudi Arabia Analysis: Explaining the "Days of Rage" in the Kingdom (Wehrey)

Al Jazeera English's report in July on protests in Eastern Province

Frederic Wehrey writes for Foreign Policy magazine:

Saudi Arabia may have at first appeared untouched by the 2011 Arab uprisings, but the apparent calm belies a simmering crisis. Shia and Sunni sectarian tensions are arguably at the highest level since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and a harsh government crackdown is mobilizing radical elements in the Shia community and undercutting its pragmatists. The United States faces no shortage of crises in the region, but it would do well to not let this one slip too far off the radar.

Aside from obvious concerns about human rights and reform, the continued unrest in the predominantly Shia Eastern Province of the Sunni-led kingdom presents a potential strategic threat to U.S. interests. Iran has historically sought to aid beleaguered Shia communities in its neighborhood, and, as evidenced by the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing and, more recently, the cyberattack on Saudi Aramco in August of this year, it has the capability and intent to hit Saudi Arabia. Currently, there is little evidence of Iranian material support of Shia groups in the Eastern Province, but continued unrest could change that. The mounting frustrations of Saudi youth could translate into a ready pool of recruits, or prompt the reincarnation of the Saudi Hezbollah. 

Comprising 10 to 15 percent of the kingdom's population, Saudi Shia have long faced religious discrimination, political marginalization, and economic hardship. Although the Eastern Province contains the majority of Saudi oil reserves, the Shia population there has yet to benefit economically, especially when compared with Sunnis living in the central Najd region, the historic seat of Saudi power. It is therefore unsurprising that the 2011 revolts in Tunis and Cairo reverberated strongly in the east. 

Riding on the wave of change in the region, moderate Shia activists rekindled long-dormant relationships with Sunni reformists in the Najd and Hijaz provinces and planned countrywide protests for March 11, 2011. But the so-called Day of Rage fell apart, undermined by mutual distrust among Sunnis and Shia. As the day approached, Web sites and Facebook pages appeared proclaiming uniquely Shia demands and calls for reform. A number of Web-based Sunni activists lambasted the Shia organizers for pursuing a narrowly sectarian agenda that diluted the overall movement and played into the hands of the regime. This development later proved a watershed in the fracturing of the opposition and, arguably, the demise of the Saudi Spring. 

On March 9 and 10, approximately 600 to 800 Shia protesters demonstrated in the eastern, Shia-dominated city of Qatif denouncing the regime's recent arrest of the popular Shia cleric Tawfiq al-Amer and other activists. The police responded with percussion grenades and rubber bullets, provoking further anger and demonstrations across the east. The moderate Shia Web site Rasid tried to distance itself from these Shia-specific, violent protests that overshadowed cross-sect efforts. But by the end of March, hope of a Sunni-Shia Saudi Spring had been extinguished by sectarianism. 

In an attempt at reconciliation, the governor of the Eastern Province, Prince Mohammad bin Fahd, and his deputy met with a delegation of young people and clerics in late March 2011 and reportedly promised to redress Shia grievances. At the same time, however, the regime began a concerted crackdown, maintaining a near constant presence of security forces, helicopters, and armored vehicles on the streets of Qatif. On November 2, 2011, the spokesman for the Saudi Interior Ministry announced that Eastern Province police would set up a Facebook presence and assign a special team to monitor social media in the region. The alleged purpose of the Facebook page was to encourage tips and information from anonymous informants regarding outlawed activity in the region. Nearly simultaneously, the regime blocked a number of Eastern Province Web sites.

Aside from the deleterious effects on living conditions, the security and media crackdowns have had far-reaching consequences for the Shia political movement. They have hastened the declining credibility of the pragmatic, pro-dialogue approach of the Islahiyyin ("reformists"), a moderate Shia opposition movement led by Sheikh Hassan al-Saffar. These pragmatic Shia interlocutors, with whom the Saudi regime has traditionally dealt, are being replaced by something entirely new and more worrisome. Frustrated with the moderates' failure to deliver tangible results, younger Shia activists have adopted more violent, militant tactics. In a 2012 sermon, Saffar acknowledged this rage with surprising candor, warning that, "although previous generations tolerated and adapted to problems, the current generation is different." 

Responding to this pressure, Islahiyyin leaders have made statements that are increasingly strident and critical of the regime. A longtime supporter of King Abdullah's ten-year "national dialogue" project, which encourages communication among religious sects, Saffar has never condoned or incited violence. But younger activists have forced him into a more rigid position. For example, in one Friday prayer sermon last year, he directly attacked the Interior Ministry for its heavy-handed response to Shia rioting, arguing that the regime's statements facilitated an atmosphere of sectarianism. In February 2012, he delivered a sermon obliquely attacking the hypocrisy of the royal al-Saud family in criticizing the bloodletting in Syria while causing civilian deaths in the Eastern Province. These statements, in turn, provoked an even sharper escalation of anti-Shia rhetoric in the press from Sunni and pro-regime voices. 

The Saudi regime has long isolated radical Shia groups while at the same time painting the broader Shia movement as Iranian-backed, thus separating Shia from like-minded, pro-reform Sunnis. An October 2011 pro-regime editorial in al-Hayat, the Saudi daily newspaper, exemplifies this strategy. The piece called for the kingdom's authorities to crush allegedly Iranian-backed Shia protests in the Eastern Province, arguing that "it is time to admit that there are fighting groups in al-Qatif that have been trained in Iran, Syria, and Lebanon, and to start liquidating and purging them from the country." Since the article appeared last year, more than 16 protesters have been killed.

Far from isolating the radical Shia current, the security crackdown has only emboldened and popularized it. Perhaps the most significant turning point was the arrest of the popular Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr this past summer -- an event that shook the region to its core, prompting a stream of violent clashes that has yet to abate.

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