Last month, two Saudi Shi’ites received death sentences for allegedly committing crimes that caused no deaths or injuries, marking the harshest punishments issued by Saudi Arabia’s government against Shi’ite activists in the Eastern Province (EP) since sectarian unrest erupted in this strategically vital region of the Kingdom during 2011. In an effort to quell its citizens’ aspirations for political and social reform, the government has since spent $130 billion on public sector programs throughout the Kingdom. While the programs have failed to dampen anti-government sentiment in the Shi’ite majority EP, they appear to have succeeded comparatively well in other parts of the country where the Sunni majority resides. However, given that most of the Kingdom’s natural resource wealth is derived from the EP, further sectarian unrest could have significant geopolitical ramifications for the country, the region, and Saudi Arabia’s oil purchasers.
Violence between the state security apparatus and Shi’ite dissidents has been confined to the EP, which is home to nearly all of the Kingdom’s Shi’ites. Situated along the Persian Gulf coast, the Province is within close geographic proximity of Shi’ite-majority Bahrain, Iran, and Iraq. The EP also borders Kuwait, Oman, the U.A.E., and Yemen, which all have sizeable Shi’ite minorities. Since 2011, Saudi Shi’ites have held demonstrations in major population centers across the EP in defiance of the government orders. Since then, 21 citizens have been killed and more than 300 detained as a result of Riyadh’s crackdown on public displays of dissent in the EP. If history is any guide, continued oppression of Saudi Shi’ites has the potential to push some Shi’ite currents toward further militancy and extremism.
The History of Shi’ites in Saudi Arabia
Saudi Shi’ites constitute 10-15% of the Saudi population and their roots in the EP date back many centuries. Most Saudi Shi’ites practice Twelver Shi’ism, with smaller numbers adhering to Islamili and Zaydi Shi’ism. While many Salafists allege that the Shi’ite citizens in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) are “agents” of Iran, few Saudi Shi’ites are actually linked by blood to Iran’s Shi’ites. Many are relatives of Bahraini Shi’ites, as greater Bahrain previously encompassed territory within modern-day Saudi Arabia.
Throughout the 18th century, Wahhabi militants pursued their military conquest of eastern Arabia and waged violent jihad against the Shi’ite Arabs, considering them “apostates” or “false Muslims”. King Abdulaziz Al Saud, the founder of the KSA, rose up against the Ottomans to gain control over eastern Arabia during the 1910s, committing massacres against Shi’ite communities. Since the Kingdom’s establishment in 1932, Saudi Shi’ites have experienced discrimination in both the public and private spheres. No cabinet member, deputy minister, ambassador, or head of any university in the KSA is Shi’ite, and the construction of Shi’ite mosques is strictly prohibited.
Iran and Saudi Arabia’s Shi’ites
Prior to the Iranian Revolution of 1979, many Saudi Shi’ites avoided politics altogether. Those Saudi Shi’ites who were politically active were primarily followers of secular and left-leaning ideologies, such as Ba’athism, Communism, and Nasserism. But the Iranian revolution provided Shi’ite Muslims across the Arab world with a new political model during the 1980s. Khomeini’s ideology, which called for the overthrow of all monarchies in the Islamic world, gained support among Saudi Arabia’s Shi’ites, who had long lasting grievances against the ruling Al-Saud family and Riyadh’s most important strategic ally, the U.S.
The newly formed Organization of Islamic Revolution in the Arabian Peninsula (IRO)united tens of thousands of Saudi Shi’ites under the banner of Khomeini’s ideology. The IRO’s political agenda called for an end to the KSA’s anti-Shi’ite discriminatory laws, an end to crude oil exports to the U.S., and the establishment of a Saudi-Iranian alliance.
Throughout the Iran-Iraq War, Iran targeted the KSA, a primary backer of Iraq, by promoting Shi’ite unrest in the EP. Tehran sent radio broadcasts and cassette tapes into the EP encouraging Saudi Shi’ites to rise up against the Saudi monarchy. Saudi-Iranian relations were entirely severed for three years following the killing of hundreds of Iranian pilgrims during the Hajj of 1987. In response, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps established Hezbollah al-Hejaz (Saudi Hezbollah), which carried out numerous terrorist attacks within Saudi Arabia. Such acts included a strike against a gas plant in 1987 and the bombing of petrochemical installations in 1988. Saudi Hezbollah also assassinated Saudi diplomats in Pakistan, Thailand, and Turkey in 1989.
However, Iran reined in support for Saudi Hezbollah as Riyadh and Tehran’s interests overlapped in 1990, following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. After the first Gulf War, more Saudi Shi’ites moderated their political positions, contending that a violent overthrow of the KSA was not realistic. Many substituted revolutionary zeal with political pragmatism, which entailed negotiating with the authorities in Riyadh.
By 1993, Riyadh granted a general amnesty to anti-government groups within the Shi’ite communities and pledged to improve their conditions on the belief that public criticism of the government would end. During the years that preceded the Arab Awakening, relative calm ensued within the EP. The most recent major terrorist attack carried out by Shi’ite elements in the EP occurred in 1996, when the Al-Khobar housing complex was attacked, killing 19 U.S. servicemen and injuring 372 Americans, Saudis, and other nationalities.
Saudi Arabia’s Arab Awakening
Since 2011, relations between Saudi security forces and various Shi’ite factions have deteriorated in the EP. Only days after the government announced a ban on all public protests that year Saudi Shi’ite protestors held a “Day of Rage”. However, rather than calling for a violent revolution, the demonstrators’ demands included equal rights for Shi’ites and the release of political prisoners in the KSA. In reaction, the Saudi police arrested more than 950 citizens, 217 of whom remain detained.
Throughout the Arab Awakening, the EP’s sectarian tensions have become increasingly connected with other sectarian conflicts in the region. Linked to the EP by a 16-mile causeway, Bahrain is dealing with its own Shi’ite-led uprising against a Sunni monarchy. Saudi forces entered Bahrain in March 2011 to assist Manama in efforts to crackdown on anti-government demonstrators within Bahrain’s Shi’ite population. During the “Day of Rage” protestors in the EP expressed their solidarity with their Shi’ite counterparts in the streets of Bahrain. Saudi officials justified their interference in Bahraini affairs on the premise that Bahrain’s uprising was linked to the Shi’ite demonstrators in the EP. Officials in the KSA are apparently concerned that Tehran may reactivate Saudi Hezbollah to pressure Saudi Arabia into backing away from its positions on Bahrain and Syria.
When Saudi Aramco’s corporate computers were hacked in 2012, it resulted in three-quarters of the data being replaced with an image of a burning U.S. flag. According to the U.S. government, Iranian agents were behind the hacking. Regardless of Tehran’s actual involvement, with the majority of Saudi Aramco workers being Shi’ites, the event was a reminder – as if one were needed — that a small number of individuals have the potential to strike against the KSA’s oil industry.
That same year, the Interior Ministry accused Shi’ite “criminals” of carrying out a “foreign agenda”, playing into a Salafist narrative that Saudi Shi’ites were a “fifth column” or “agents” of Iran. Reported cases of Shi’ite militants firing guns at police would, if true, indicate that the violence has already escalated and militant extremism is gaining ground within certain Shi’ite currents in the EP.
Integration vs. Alienation
Iran’s ties with the smaller GCC states have thawed since President Rouhani took office last year. Although Saudi Arabia remains the GCC state that most aggressively counters Iran, it appears that Riyadh is making efforts to keep diplomatic lines with Iran open, while continuing to wage proxy wars aimed at countering Tehran’s influence in the Arab world, most notably in Syria. While Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic overtures to Iran last month were driven by numerous factors, Riyadh likely considers one benefit of reduced tension with Iran to be greater potential for decreasing the EP’s sectarian temperature. It is, however, difficult to forecast how Tehran may respond, or whether any progress in the bilateral relationship will have a positive impact in the long-term.
Sectarian unrest cannot be entirely attributed to Iran’s quest for greater influence in the GCC. Long before the Iranian revolution, Saudi Shi’ites were oppressed by the KSA’s ruling Wahhabi order. The Saudi government should acknowledge that the root cause of anti-government opposition in the EP is a political system that treats Shi’ites as second class citizens. How the Saudi authorities seek to deal with the Shi’ite opposition – whether through dialogue and compromise or further oppression — will shape the future of the KSA’s sectarian landscape. Greater authoritarianism and human rights violations threaten to unleash a more militant response from Saudi Shi’ites.
Since 2011, the anti-government activism in the EP has underscored certain parallels between the Saudi Shi’ites’ call for political and social reform, and Arab Awakening movements in other Middle Eastern and North African states. Clearly, the KSA is vulnerable to enhanced dissent and rebellion within its borders. Yet, by responding to calls for political and social rights with an iron fist, the Saudi government is swimming against the tide.
Funding a Rentier State can placate citizens only as long as the government maintains legitimacy. The oppression of Saudi Arabia’s Shi’ites is costing the ruling order its legitimacy among an increasingly large number of citizens in the EP. To preserve relative stability, Riyadh needs to find a way to integrate its Shi’ite minority more meaningfully into Saudi society. Alienating and repressing the Shi’ites has not worked. The problem can only grow more pronounced with time.
Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions, Senior Advisor with Gnarus Advisors, and author of the book “Managing Country Risk”. Giorgio Cafiero is co-founder of Gulf State Analytics.