Shia-led demonstrations have persisted in Saudi Arabia's oil-rich Eastern Province for two years and show no signs of stopping. They began as a show of solidarity with Bahrain's Shia, who were calling for greater political freedoms in their own country. But like similar demonstrations occurring throughout North Africa and the Middle East in 2011, the protesters' message took on additional grievances, including the release of political prisoners and open criticisms of the government.
Initially, the protests were non-violent. But in October 2011, several activists were killed or injured when Saudi security forces reportedly opened fire on a crowd of protesters. Protesters responded by adopting more violent tactics, such as using firearms and incendiary devices against security forces.
Violence escalated ever further when a prominent Shiite cleric named Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was shot and arrested on July 8, 2012. The incident reinvigorated the protest movement, with demonstrations occurring almost daily. Protesters set fires in the streets and resumed their use of incendiary devices against security forces.
Drivers of the Protests
The renewed violence raises the question of who ultimately is behind the protest movement. Interestingly, those responsible are not part of what could be considered the region's traditional Shiite factions. Through a combination of arrests and internal differences, many of these factions, including Saudi Hezbollah, the Shirazis, Shiite Islamic Reform Movement/Islahiyah, the Traditionalists and Diwaniyat, have fragmented or disbanded since the 1980s and 1990s. Any remnant group still in existence is unstructured at best, with no clear membership or leadership.The old factions have been sidelined by loosely affiliated youth movements that organize through social media. (Well-structured groups pose an operational security risk and can be more easily dismantled.) These decentralized groupings are the driving force behind the ongoing demonstrations in Eastern Province.
The first demonstrations in Eastern Province spread over social networks, and they were supported by radical Shiite clerics, who dedicated sermons to outlining anti-regime grievances. However, Saudi authorities quickly identified and arrested many of these clerics as part of a broader effort to rid the province of radical Shiite clergy and human rights activists.
Indeed, this became Riyadh's preferred method of dealing with the protesters. With their clerics removed from power, Shiite activists no longer had figures to whom they could look for advice or guidance. The clerics who were not arrested were much more conservative, and they maintained relationships with the government. Activists were forced to look elsewhere for assistance.
In the process, many activists looked at their Shiite counterparts in Bahrain. The opposition movement in Bahrain is much more developed and organized than the movement in Saudi Arabia, where Shiite political parties technically are illegal. When protests in Bahrain began, a radical group known as the February 14 Movement emerged, using social media to disseminate information and plan protests. Composed mostly of youth activists, the February 14 Movement quickly adopted violent tactics, and over time it employed pipe bombs and widespread arson.
The protest movement in Saudi Arabia eventually followed suit. In March 2012, several social activist groups united under a single entity called the Coalition for Freedom and Justice, which sported the most radical members of the anti-government establishment. The group adopted several of the February 14 Movement's techniques, including a decentralized leadership; the development of digital flyers, made with February 14 Movement templates, to promote the use of Molotov cocktails against security forces; and the use of arson. And like the February 14 Movement, the Coalition for Freedom and Justice provoked security forces to respond to protests violently in hopes of galvanizing the local Shiite population against the state.
The fact that the Coalition for Freedom and Justice has no central leadership makes it difficult for the government to shut it down. Arresting activists and clerics simply is not effectively discouraging protests; often, the arrests spur even more protests. Relying on co-opted Shiite leaders to pacify the protesters, a long-time tactic for Riyadh, is also proving ineffective. Shiite activists have demonstrated that they are unwilling to abide by such conservative teachings and admonitions.
Thus, the Saudi government must now re-examine its tactics of controlling the activist Shiite population. Riyadh likely will continue to arrest clerics and activists in hopes of weakening and keeping pressure on the opposition. But the government is considering a few new tactics, one of which is the establishment of a new Saudi Shiite marja, a high-ranking Shiite religious authority to whom the Shia can look for guidance. Some Shia have looked to Iraqi marja Ali al-Sistani for guidance, but Riyadh is worried that his influence is fading.
The leadership void within Eastern Province's Shiite community worries Saudi officials, especially since Shiite protests have been simmering for two years. Although the most active of the Shiite activists seem to be taking their cues from Bahrain and a few radical opposition clerics, Saudi Arabia is worried that another Shiite power, Iran, might try to fill the leadership void by influencing the Iraqi Hawza, or seminary schools.The threat of Iranian influence among the Shia of the Arabian Peninsula is not a prospect Riyadh views lightly. But Iran does not appear to be an immediate threat in this regard. Cultural differences aside, distinct political and religious differences may deter cooperation. For example, whereas Iranian Shia accept the principle of Velayat-e-Faqih, or the call for a Guardian Jurist to serve as supreme leader of the government, Saudi Shia do not. Thus, any Iranian religious leader, who would very likely adhere to Velayat-e-Faqih, would be ill suited as a religious leader of Saudi Shia.
Moreover, Iran is otherwise preoccupied with the Syria conflict. Were Syrian President Bashar al Assad to fall, Tehran would lose its influence in Syria and, by extension, Lebanon and the greater Levant. Iran is meanwhile trying to manage its influence in Iraq — an increasingly difficult task as Syrian Sunnis spill across the border. Coupled with Iran's domestic political and financial woes, this regional preoccupation will prevent Iran from becoming a meaningful actor in Eastern Province.
If Saudi protesters are inclined to end their demonstrations, they have shown no sign of it. Like the Bahraini protesters before them, the Saudi Shia will incorporate violence into their demonstrations as time goes on. But the Shia know that protests in Eastern Province alone will not foment governmental change; they hope their calls for greater political freedom will take hold among the Sunnis. For its part, the government will continue to sharply resist any protests, and that resistance will adapt to a shifting and more divergent Shiite landscape in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province.