By Matthew M. Reed
14 people were wounded in Saudi Arabia on Monday after riots erupted in the predominantly Shia town of al Awamiyah, located in the eastern oil-rich region of Qatif. According to AFP: “Tension in the village boiled over Monday as Saudi police arrested two men, both in their 70s, in a bid to force their fugitive sons, accused of taking part in Shiite-led protests, to surrender, according to a Shiite activist.” Judging from videos and other accounts, dozens of masked young men hit the streets; some lit small fires, others threw petrol bombs, and, for the first time in 2011, protestors fired on police with automatic rifles. To be generous, the protests appear ad hoc and amateurish and not a result of conspiracy or serious coordination.
Tensions first arose in March when hundreds of Shiites protested their community’s discrimination as well as the imprisonment of a leading cleric who called for reform. Saudi police responded immediately, as did global oil markets: within minutes of an Associated Press report suggesting police had fired their weapons to disperse the crowd, oil prices jumped $3 based on the assumption that an uprising in the east could disrupt production. Such knee-jerk reactions make little sense when one considers the fact that even al Qaeda could not disrupt Saudi oil or seriously damage infrastructure during its 2003-2006 campaign. But, that said, Qatif remains especially problematic for the Saudi royal family because sectarian faultlines and oil pipelines meet there. And many Shia do work in the oil industry, I understand. Beyond that, perceptions matter to the Saudis given their status as a major oil exporter that enjoys historic stability in spite of regional upheaval.
The Saudi response to Monday’s episode was speedy. As of Thursday, the town is reportedly quiet and security forces are withdrawing, but Saudi officials are making a lot of noise blaming an unnamed “foreign country” (i.e. Iran) for the unrest. It’s hard to say why, but the Saudis haven’t explicitly blamed Iran, even though the Gulf Cold War is in full swing. Completely ruling out Iranian involvement in Saudi Arabia’s Shia community would be unfair given Tehran’s historic connection to outfits like Saudi Hizballah, which the FBI concluded was responsible for the Khobar Tower bombings in 1996. But, in this particular episode, it seems very, very unlikely given that all accounts suggest the Saudis initiated the drama by pressuring the family members of two Shiite fugitives. (More surprising in this case was the fact that oil markets were unaffected by the drama in al Awamiyah. Anxieties surrounding the health of the global economy pushed prices down until Wednesday and today, when they ticked upward with news that US stockpiles shrank and the Labor Department was about to release a positive jobs report on Friday.)
Again, the videos—if they are to be trusted—suggest the protestors are not very disciplined: some ride around on motorbikes; others gossip in small groups while their masks make them appear more menacing than their actions. AFP also quoted Abdulaziz Sager, chairman of the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center, who suggested there was “‘concrete evidence of Iran’s involvement’ in this week’s unrest, including ‘telephone calls from Tehran that were intercepted’ by Saudi Arabia.” Mr. Sager continued: “This is ‘a message from Iran to Gulf states after its failure in Syria and its loss of a strategic ally. It will respond… and we will begin to see escalation in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province,’ he said.” I have reservations about this because the sequence of events suggests Monday’s drama was reactionary rather than a designed provocation. And, until Saudi officials are willing to own those accusations, rather than speak in generalities or in secret to some experts, it’s best to wait and see. We need more details for sure.
Frequent accusations should make observers wonder why the Arab Gulf sheikhdoms so often “cry wolf” and blame Iran. Part of this paranoia is historically based. In the immediate post-revolutionary period, Iran did in fact encourage Shia factions to agitate where Sunni rulers challenged the Islamic Republic. Such enthusiasm dried up when reformists came to power in Tehran during the mid-1990s. Since then, Iranian fingerprints have been harder to find on the Arab side of the Gulf—though not impossible. Instead we are left with accusations that many observers quickly dismiss. The problem here is two-fold.
First, obsessing over Iran without providing evidence can only hurt the monarchies’ credibility, if in fact there is some grain of truth to be found. The Saudis cannot benefit from a credibility gap as the U.S. shrinks its profile in the region. They and others need to provide evidence because it will only cement Iran’s reputation as a regional provocateur. (The problem then becomes what the Saudis do about explicit Iranian involvement. No doubt it would lead some at home to call for a serious response that could invite war–this might explain why the Saudis make such general comments.) Second, blaming Tehran for all domestic unrest prevents the government from taking any responsibility for the status of the Shia community, which, by all measures, suffers because it is a minority sect in an ultra-conservative Sunni-Wahhabi kingdom. Associations of this kind reinforce discriminatory practices because the Shia are portrayed as agents of a foreign enemy even if only some are sympathetic to Iran.
Saudi Arabia’s Shia community totals some two million of twenty million nationals. Given their sensitive location and size, there is no guarantee that the Saudis can keep a lid on their Shia problem forever. As events in Tunisia and Syria prove, it only takes one symbolic act, and a fuse is lit which leads to unpredictable consequences. If the Kingdom values long-term stability, the Shia cannot be driven into the arms of Iran, which current policies and accusations risk doing. There appears only one good way forward if the Saudis are worried about Iranian intrigue: Shiites must become fuller citizens and those grievances that afford Iran any leverage must be addressed. I write this, admittedly, from thousands of miles away, where it is impossible to tap into the historic enmity and mutual suspicion that defines Sunni-Shia interaction on the Arabian Peninsula. But the future of the Kingdom depends on farsightedness now more than ever in a time of uncertainty.