At least seven young Shiite Muslims have been shot dead and several dozen wounded by security forces in Eastern Saudi Arabia in recent months. While details of the shootings remain unclear, and the ministry of interior claims those shot were attacking the security forces, mass protests have followed the funerals of the deceased. These events are only the latest developments in the decades-long struggle of the Saudi Shiites, which has taken on a new urgency in the context of 2011’s regional uprisings — but have been largely ignored by mainstream media.
The events of the Arab Spring have heightened long-standing tensions in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. Just three days after large-scale protests started in Bahrain on February 14, 2011, protests began in the Eastern Province, which is a 30-minute drive across the causeway from Bahrain. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Saudi interior ministry vowed to crush the protests with an "Iron Fist" and has unleashed a media-smear campaign against protests and the Shiites in general. While protests subsided over the summer, they started again in October and have become larger ever since, leading to an ever more heavy-handed response from the security forces.
This repressive response, with distinct rhetorical echoes of Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime, poses an awkward challenge to recent Saudi foreign policy. The protests of the people in the Eastern Province are as legitimate as the protests in Syria. If Saudi Arabia does not respond to these calls for reform at home how can it seriously claim to rise to the defense of democracy in Syria? The crackdown in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain has given the Iranian and Syrian regime, as well as Shiite political movements in Lebanon and Iraq, a useful rhetorical gambit to push back against their regional rivals.
The Eastern Province is home to virtually all of Saudi Arabia’s oil and to a sizeable Shiite minority, estimated at between one and a half and two million people or around 10 percent of Saudi Arabia’s citizen population. The Wahhabi creed of Sunni Islam that the state sponsors in Saudi Arabia has developed a special hostility toward the Shiites. Saudi Shiite citizens in turn have long complained of discrimination in religious practice, government employment, and business, and overall marginalization.
For decades, opposition groups formed by Saudi Shiites, both leftist and Islamists, as well as hundreds of petitions by Shiite notables, have had the same demands: an end to sectarian discrimination in government employment and representation in main state sectors including at the ministerial level; more development in Shiite areas; the strengthening of the Shiite judiciary; and an end to arbitrary arrests of Shiite for religious or political reasons. None of these demands would significantly undermine the position of the royal family, or otherwise threaten the integrity of Saudi Arabia. They would rather cement the current political system and buy the allegiance of two million people living on top of the kingdom’s oil.
Since last year, the demands have also included the release or retrial of nine Shiite political prisoners and a withdrawal of Saudi forces from Bahrain, or at least a negotiated solution to the conflict there, as well as more general political reforms in Saudi Arabia. The government promised youth activists that their grievances would be addressed in April 2011, so following a call from senior Saudi Shiite clerics to halt protests, they did so. But the government did not follow through, and answered with repression over the summer, even though it released some prisoners that were arrested during the February to April 2011 protests. Therefore, the situation remained tense, and when four Shiites were shot dead in November their funerals turned into anti-government rallies with up to a 100,000 participants.
The perception of systematic discrimination has led some Saudi Shiites to embrace revolutionary ideologies over the decades. While pro-Iranian groups still exist amongst Gulf Shiites, they are not the most powerful amongst Saudi Shiites and had largely renounced violence as a political tool since at least the mid-1990s. But Saudi Arabia’s repressive response to the protests and the zero-concessions policy are providing fertile breeding ground for future opposition groups. A repetition of post-1979 Shiite politics, when hundreds of young Shiites left Bahrain and Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province to become active in regional revolutionary movements, seems possible.
As the protests in Bahrain and particularly in Qatif receive only limited attention on Gulf-owned channels like Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, local Shiites are forced to watch the Iranian-sponsored Arabic-language Al Alam channel, Lebanese Hezbollah’s Al Manar, Iraq’s Ahlul Bait TV, or increasingly other pro-Assad channels to receive updates on the situation in their areas. The new cold war in the Middle East has turned into a fully-fledged media war, in which media outlets are either with the protests in Bahrain and Qatif and for Assad’s regime, or with the protests in Syria and against the allegedly sectarian protests in Bahrain and Qatif.
The situation for Saudi Shiites in the Eastern Province is no secret. The U.S. State Department’s Annual Report to Congress on International Religious Freedom for the second half of 2010, the period immediately predating the Arab Spring, records arbitrary detentions, mosque closures, and the arrest of Shiite worshippers. U.S. diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks revealed that U.S. diplomats, and particularly the staff at its consulate in Dhahran, have an incredible amount of information on the local Shiite communities and seem almost obsessed with grievances they deem legitimate. But the specific problems of the Saudi Shiites almost never come up at high-level meetings with Saudi officials.
This is not only due to the close Saudi and U.S. alliance. Americans sometimes share the suspicion of the Gulf Shiites, which permeates some of its allied regimes. This suspicion is partly to do with Iran, but also has its roots in the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers, which killed 19 U.S. servicemen. Nine Shiite prisoners have been incarcerated since 1996 for their alleged membership in Hezbollah al-Hijaz and their involvement in the bombings. They were indicted in the United States in 2001, but as U.S. foreign policy priorities changed after September 11 they became "forgotten," the name they are known by amongst Saudi Shiites. The indictment hints at the involvement of Lebanese Hezbollah and Iran but no evidence has ever been made public. At the time some Americans called for retaliation against Iran as a response to this bombing. But after September 11, fingers began to point toward al Qaeda as involved in the attack, raising questions about the guilt of these prisoners.
The secrecy surrounding this issue has contributed to mistrust toward the state and suspicion on parts of family members of the detained and the wider Saudi Shiite communities. Saudi Shiite protesters this year have adopted the cause of the nine prisoners. Their pictures were held up at rallies demanding their release, where their family members played a significant role. They were the Shiite counterparts of a simultaneous protest campaign in front of the ministry of interior in Riyadh by family members of political prisoners arrested on suspicion of membership in al Qaeda. But contrary to those prisoners, the Shiite prisoners cannot hope ever to be "rehabilitated" in one of the government’s much advertised de-radicalization programs. It seems to be justified to at least ask for a public trial, a move repeatedly endorsed by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. But such a trial does not appear to be on the foreign-policy agenda of the United States.
The behavior of the Saudi leadership only allows the conclusion that repression of the Shiites is a fundamental part of Saudi political legitimacy. The state does not want to change the position of the Shiites and Shiite protests are used by the state to frighten the Sunni population of an Iranian takeover of the oilfields with the help of local Shiites. Similar narratives have been propagated in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) media for months, at the cost of further deepening the sectarian divide in the Gulf States. The GCC intervention in Bahrain has severely worsened sectarian relations in the Gulf and beyond to levels not seen since the Iranian Revolution. But this open Saudi sectarianism has already had negative repercussions in Iraq, as well as in Syria, Lebanon, and Kuwait. Bahrain looks set for years of sectarian conflict, community relations have broken down completely, and the state is conducting a campaign of what Shiite activists call "ethnic cleansing." Rather than completely alienating the Shiites, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain should negotiate a social contract with them. Failing to do so will lead to years of instability with uncertain outcomes. And it is far from certain that other Saudis will not be encouraged by the Shiite protests, as a recent statement by liberal Saudis from all over the kingdom denouncing the crackdown in Qatif has shown.
The West should press its allies, above all Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, to stop simply shooting and arresting their Shiite citizens and brandishing them as Iranian agents and traitors. The alienation of Shiite youth foments a perfect breeding ground for a new Gulf Shiite opposition movement and plays into the hands of the Iranian regime. Even without external help for the local Shiite protesters, the area looks ripe for a return to the tense sectarian politics of the 1980s. The United States should in its own, and in the Gulf States’, interest push for a real reconciliation between the Shiites of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and their governments. Otherwise, sectarianism will come to dominate the Gulf, to the detriment of all.
Toby Matthiesen is a research fellow in Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Cambridge.