Our guest author today is Matthew Kimmel, who has had an academic interest in the Middle East since beginning his B.A. in Global studies at Arizona State University, where he wrote his undergraduate thesis on Civil Society and Democratization in Saudi Arabia. His experience in the region includes living in Israel and conducting research in Cairo. He has worked at the Institute for National Strategic Studies and received his M.A. in Middle East Studies from George Washington University in 2012.
While the world has watched with rapt attention at the numerous uprisings and wars that have spread across the Middle East in the past two years, one long simmering uprising has escaped most people’s notice. The Shi’a of Saudi Arabia have long had a tense relationship with the ruling monarchy, which has become violent in the past. The most notable case of this was in 1979, when an uprising centered around the town of Qatif resulted in an unknown number of casualties and the Saudi government declaring a state of emergency and calling in the national guard headed by prince Abdullah, who is now king.
Since then, there has been a tense relationship between the Saudi government and the Shi’a highlighted by periods of attempted reconciliation and increased repression. These tensions boiled over again in the months following the start of the Arab Spring. 2011 saw hundreds of protesters arrested, dozens injured, and at least 14 civilians killed (along with 2 security officers). The self perpetuating cycle of protests, violent crackdowns against the protests, and even larger protests against violent crackdowns continued. By the start of 2012, protests were tens of thousands strong and occurring regularly.
Then, on July 8, the Saudi government made a move that sent the protests into a frenzy and may stand out as the perfect example of how not to quell protesters. Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, one of the most prominent Saudi Shi’a leaders, was shot and arrested. (The government claims that he was shot during a fight with security forces sent to arrest him; protesters claim he was shot without provocation). Nimr had long been a thorn in the side of the Saudi regime. As early as 2009 he had spoken out in favor of using protests to pressure the regime to enact reforms allowing for increased religious, economic, and political rights for the Shi’a.
As the protests grew in the first few months of the Arab spring, Nimr al-Nimr was one of the only clerics who endorsed the protests rather than urging a return to homes and negotiations. After pictures of the cleric bloody and battered emerged, massive protests erupted and another two Shi’a were killed. Since then tensions in the Saudi eastern province have gone from bad to worse. Another two people were killed on August 3, and protests have continued regularly with the latest one happening on November 9. Violence against Saudi security force has also continued, with a series of attacks against police patrols and stations occurring last month. While these attacks have so far been small-scale and localized, there is the risk that unrest in the region could spread and have potentially devastating effects. Perhaps the best example of this is the massive cyber attack Saudi Aramco suffered over the summer, which many in the kingdom blamed on the Saudi Shi’a.
On August 10, Aramco suffered a massive cyber attack, which crippled the company for several days but, thankfully, did not result in any oil loss. While many have blamed Iran for this act of cyber warfare, the relatively unsophisticated nature of the programming as well as the fact that the attack was carried out by an Aramco employee with access to the network led many in Saudi Arabia to blame the attacks on Shi’a who were working with Iran.
Agents of Iran or Agents of Reform?
The kingdom’s authorities often use the claim that the Shi’a are agents of Iran as a means of dismissing the protests in Qatif. Early statements against the protests in the Eastern Province described the protesters as acting “to disrupt security at the behest of a foreign country which tried to undermine the security of the homeland in a blatant act of interference.” Additionally, it has been common for Saudi media sources such as Al Arabiya to hint that Syria and Hezbollah are involved in this unrest, further creating links to Iran. These actions allow for the Saudi government to discredit these protesters.
However, anyone with a decent knowledge of the leadership of the Saudi Shi’a and their goals over the past 20 years knows that they are not anywhere near the agents of Iran that the Saudi government claims they are. It is important to note, however, that, the leadership of the Saudi Shi’a have lost credibility with many of the youth in Qatif as they have continued to call for reconciliation and a stop to protests. This conciliatory tone has enraged many of the region’s youth who see it as proof that the Shi’a leadership does not represent their interests.
Despite Saudi claims, the Shi’a leadership connections to Iran are rather weak. While many of the prominent Shi’a clerics such as Hassan al-Safar did have some religious training in Iran and spent time in the country studying, their ties to Iran have usually been weak. When the leaders of the Shi’a uprising of 1979 were forced into exile, they found themselves in London—not Tehran. Secondly, the rhetoric of these religious leaders has none of the theocratic tones that one would expect from Iranian agents. Much of the Shi’a leadership has been pro-democracy and supported religious pluralism. Finally, the demands of the Shiite’s initial protests were based on simple demands for greater inclusion and spending. While there was some degree of protests against the Saudi role in the clampdown of protests in neighboring Bahrain (the Shi’a communities of these two countries have a good amount of historical connections), initial demands were based far more on local, economic, and religious grievances. This is in keeping with historical precedent in which the Saudi Shi’a have protested for three key areas- greater religious freedoms, greater infrastructure investment, and greater inclusion.
Due to the religious nature of the Saudi government, Shi’a religious activity has been greatly restricted. Shi’a Ashoura ceremonies have traditionally been tightly curtailed and the Saudi education and religious systems are filled with instances of anti-Shi’a propaganda. Additionally, the area around Qatif has traditionally been neglected; they were the last to receive modern sewer systems and many Shi’a activists have complained about the lack of government investment. Lastly, the Shi’a are completely shut out from the higher echelons of business and almost the entirety of the government. As such, the Shi’a see themselves as second-class citizens and are protesting against this fact, not because they are part of some broader Iranian backed “Shi’a crescent” stretching from Iran to the Levant and south into Saudi Arabia.
If the Saudi government is to stop Qatif from continuing to be a center of discontent and from becoming more chaotic they may have to resume the reconciliation process that King Abdullah began after the wave of terrorism that struck the country after 2003. This would relax tensions, and help create a more inclusive kingdom. Given the increased tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as the complex interplay between religion and state in the region, this seems unlikely, especially as protests and arrests continue. Additionally, the Saudi government does have the ability to use increasing amounts of force, and may see violence as preferable to changing the religious and political status quo of the kingdom.