The arrest of the Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr in his hometown of Awwamiya in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province on Sunday afternoon, July 8, has been long in the making. In some ways many observers had been wondering why he had not been arrested earlier, since he had become the spiritual leader of the protest movement in Eastern Saudi Arabia and his outspoken views put him clearly at odds with the Saudi ruling family. But while Nimr al-Nimr repeatedly called upon the local youth to be ready to die as martyrs, he urged them not to "return bullets with bullets" but use peaceful means instead. He acknowledged that Shiites would suffer much more if they were to attack the overwhelming firepower of the Saudi regime, and therefore called for peaceful demonstrations and civil disobedience.
In cables released by Wikileaks, U.S. diplomats tried to come to grips with Nimr’s role from marginal cleric to a rallying figure for young Shiites, meeting personally with him on one occasion. The diplomatic reporter wrote: "Al-Nimr resides in Awamiyya, which is a notoriously radical Shi’a village in the Qatif oasis referred to half-jokingly by other Qatifis as ‘Little Falluja.’" As one Shiite contact told PolOff, (political officer)"every house in Awamiyya has a gun… seriously." The U.S. diplomats in Saudi Arabia wondered why Nimr was not arrested earlier, after repeatedly being highly critical of the government, even demanding secession of the Eastern Province in 2009. Three theories abound. Firstly, there are conspiracy theorists who argue that the hardliners within the ruling family, such as the former Crown Prince and Interior Minister Prince Naif bin Abdulaziz, had been using Nimr to scare the Sunnis and oppose King Abdullah’s interfaith dialogue and tentative outreach to the Shiites. Secondly, that the arrest of Nimr would create heightened unrest that the government wants to avoid. Nimr had been in hiding from 2009 to 2011, and thereafter only appeared in large crowds of people, at funerals or in his mosque, all places where an arrest would be difficult without causing casualties or creating upheavals. And thirdly, the Wikileaks cable goes on to say that the government will ultimately react, but "on its own timeline." It did so on July 8, and the manner of Nimr’s arrest outside of his mosque suggests that he will not be out anytime soon. According to the ever Orwellian ministry of interior, when Nimr "and those with him tried to resist the security men and initiated shooting and crashed into one of the security patrols while trying to escape, he was dealt with in accordance with the situation and responded to in kind and arrested after he was wounded in his thigh."
Nonetheless, it is curious why he was arrested now, one and a half years after protests started in the Eastern Province in February 2011, particularly as the protest movement had fizzled out since March. The youth movement that led the mass protests between November 2011 and February, when seven young Shiites were shot dead and their funerals turned into the largest protests the country had seen since a former uprising in the Saudi Eastern Province in 1979. Saudi Shiites are discriminated against in the country, which anyway lacks basic political freedoms, and were therefore thrilled to capitalize on the regional changes brought about by the Arab Spring.
But these protests had lost steam and the Eastern Province was relatively calm for several months. Now, on the other hand, the Shiite youth again have a cause that brings thousands to the streets, and the demonstrations are in full swing, an escalation brought about by Nimr’s arrest. Immediately after his arrest, large demonstrations erupted in Qatif and two protesters were shot, al-Sayyid Akbar al-Shakhuri from Awwamiyya and Muhammad al-Filfil from Shuwaikha, putting the total number of people killed at nine in this long-simmering conflict, perhaps the most under-reported uprising in the Arab Spring protests. Who would have an interest, then, in such an escalation? The arrest and shooting of Nimr al-Nimr is certainly an answer to the question whether the replacement of Prince Naif with the new Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz and the new Interior Minister Prince Ahmad bin Abdulaziz would change the position of the ruling family on political reform or on the Shiite question. Prince Naif, who died in June in Geneva, was a hardline figure that personally regarded the Shiite as a threat and with suspicion, and advocated a zero-tolerance policy on popular dissent and protests. Many believe his influence led to the decision to send Saudi troops to Bahrain in March 2011 to quell pro-democracy protests, in order to prevent demonstrations from spilling over into the Eastern Province. The answer then is no, his death has not changed the position of the ruling family, and the arrest of Nimr might be seen as a move by the new Interior Minister Prince Ahmad to assert a hardline position domestically. But Shiite youth also did not change their attitude. While Shiite notables went to pledge allegiance (bai’a) to the new crown prince, others celebrated the death of Prince Naif in the streets of Awwamiyya and Qatif, allegedly inspired by a critical sermon by Nimr.
Indeed, while Nimr retains a lot of popularity amongst the Shiite youth, he is a hated figure for many other Saudis. On Twitter and Facebook he is frequently insulted, as his sermons over the last years have broken a whole range of political taboos in Saudi Arabia, including calling for the fall of the royal family. It might be, then, that the newly appointed senior royals want to play tough on the Shiites by arresting a controversial cleric, and thereby boosting their popularity amongst the Sunnis in other parts of the country. Hence, relations between the Shiites and the government have probably never been as bad since the Iranian revolution.
But there is another dimension that is even more worrisome. The arrest of Nimr comes amidst a military buildup in the Gulf and a similar crackdown in Bahrain. On Monday July 9, the prominent Bahraini human rights activist Nabil Rajab was sentenced to three months in prison for some Twitter posts, and was taken from his home by masked security forces. His was one of the few voices that continued to speak out publicly against human rights abuses and for profound political reform in the Island Kingdom, and who had not been arrested. Indeed, conspiracy theories similar to the ones about Nimr had surrounded him, mainly that the Bahraini ruling family had let him continue to speak his mind in order to frighten the Sunnis, even though he had been repeatedly attacked and intimidated. Also on July 9, the Bahraini Shiite political group Amal was officially disbanded by the regime, even though it had been defunct as almost all of its leaders were arrested last year. Both Amal and Nimr follow the Kerbala-based Ayatollah Muhammad Taqi al-Mudarrisi, whose brother Hadi al-Mudarrisi has taken a very critical stance against the Saudi and Bahraini ruling families. It seems this crackdown also goes against the transnational Shiite current that is a branch of the Shirazi political movement, named after its founder Muhammad Mahdi al-Shirazi, whose more politically minded branch has increasingly come to be known as the mudarrisiyya.
In addition, the United States has stepped up its military presence in the Gulf region, sending additional warships, and the Gulf states put their militaries on high alert in late June amidst reports of significant troop deployments in the Eastern Province. The silencing of the most outspoken dissident voices then, goes hand in hand with possible preparations for war, and is probably also taken as a precautionary measure in the event of an attack on Iran. While the accusation that Nimr is an Iranian proxy, often leveled by Sunni Saudis, is an exaggeration: he follows the Kerbala-based Ayatollah Muhammad Taqi al-Mudarrisi and not the Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, he has repeatedly defended Iran, and has spoken out against an attack on Iran. In that sense, he would have probably denounced an attack on Iran vehemently, and called for more demonstrations in the Eastern Province.
He had also become popular in Bahrain, whose uprising he fiercely supports, as seen in demonstrations in his support in various Shiite villages in Bahrain over the last few days. So, the question remains whether Saudi Arabia’s allies, above all the United States, condoned this crackdown. David Petraeus, the Director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency met Saudi King Abdullah in Jeddah on the same day, July 9.
From a local perspective, the timing seems strange, and indeed counter-productive. The protests in the Eastern Province had stopped, many youth activists were frustrated that after one and a half years of protests they had not achieved any political goals, bare the death of several martyrs and the mobilization of a particular segment of shabab, young men. Now, however, they have a new battle cry that they will use to mobilize other segments of Saudi Shiite society. But the calculations of the Saudi and perhaps U.S. security establishments seem to be that, with Nimr behind bars, the protests will eventually stop, and above all, in the event of a confrontation in the Gulf, a popular figure that could rally protesters is eliminated. It is difficult to predict which way things are going to turn out. But this untimely arrest, particularly after shooting the cleric in the leg, may well be a shot in the foot and give new momentum not just to the protest movement in Eastern Saudi Arabia, but also in Bahrain. There, the youth activists have shown that even with the most prominent opposition leaders in jail, they can sustain organized demonstrations, and have increasingly returned to the pre-2011 tactics of street fighting with police. It seems a strange conclusion that this could not happen in Saudi Arabia with Nimr in jail.
Toby Matthiesen is a research fellow in Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Cambridge. Follow him at @TobyMatthiesen.