In the restive city of Qatif in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, the older Shiites are quiet. They had once cheered the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran and had hoped their time had come for greater equality in the kingdom. But that dream has faded.
The younger generation is just angry. And now they are picking up where the elders have left off.
Since the Arab Spring swept the Middle East in late 2010 and early 2011, pressure has been building in the Eastern Province where an estimated 2 million Shiites live. For decades Shiites faced employment and religious discrimination under the Sunni monarchy, but hope arrived when King Abdullah assumed the throne in 2005. The anticipation for better employment opportunities, participation in government and freedom to practice their form of Islam, such commemorating the Day of Ashura to remember the martyr Husayn bin Al, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, heightened as Shiite leaders traveled to Riyadh to greet the new king and pledge their loyalty.
“Nothing ever happened after that visit with the new king, and we are impatient,” said Saeed, a 24-year-old Shiite Saudi who says he never held a job after graduating from secondary school. “We looked to our fathers to solve the problems with the king, but it’s been too long. It is up to us now.”
As a result, the Eastern Province has been wracked with occasional, but more frequent outbursts of violence. Emboldened somewhat by the revolutions in neighboring Arab countries, but also largely fueled by social media campaigns on Twitter and Facebook, young people have taken to the streets. Their numbers since early 2011 have grown from a few dozens to hundreds earlier this summer.
Shiite street demonstrations in Saudi Arabia are not unprecedented and have resulted in numerous deaths since the 1979 Islamic revolution. Few Saudis point to the Arab Spring as a catalyst for the recent demonstrations, but to Iran.
In 1979, Shiites generally supported the Ayatollah Khomeini invectives against the Saudi royal family. Khomeini claimed a hereditary monarchy was illegitimate. Street demonstrations numbered in the thousands and Saudi clashes between security forces and rioters in November 1979 left 24 dead and hundreds arrested.
More than 400 people died in rioting in July 1987, when Shia pilgrims demonstrated in Makkah during the Hajj and clashed with police and National Guardsmen. The next day, Khomeini urged Shiites to overthrow the Saudi government.
Since March 2011, Shiites have been staging demonstrations demanding that political prisoners be released from Saudi jails. Security forces fired upon demonstrators in separate incidents over the past year, killing at least six people. Some activists have said that as many as 10 are dead due to security crackdowns.
Saudis in other regions of the kingdom have largely ignored the violence in the Eastern Province. Saudi media gives it scant attention and limits its coverage to officials Saudi Press Agency reports.
A Sunni Saudi journalist, who declined to give his name for publication, wrote that he does not dispute that Shiites have historically experienced institutionalized discrimination, but he supports the security forces’ tough crackdown on demonstrators.
“Yes, they have had a difficult time for no other reason than they are Shiite,” the writer said. “But they are demonstrating with signs that have slogans and pictures of their masters in Iran. If that is not sedition and a threat to our national security, I don’t know what is.”
The journalist’s attitude illustrates the apathy for Shiites who some Saudis say have taken a route that violates the Islamic principle that citizens do not rise against a Muslim ruler, especially one considered to be a positive force in society. Instead of airing grievances directly to the king or the Shoura Council—Saudi Arabia’s advisory quasi-legislative body—demonstrators prefer citing allegiance to rulers of Shiite-dominated countries, such as Iran, the journalist said.
“When I and my brothers are ignored our entire lives by the government we are supposed to love and respect, it’s only natural to look to someone else for answers,” said a 29-year-old Shiite woman, who lives in Dammam and says she does not participate in protests.
She also denied that Iran influences demonstrators. “We don’t need outsiders to tell us we are treated like dogs here,” she said.
A Saudi analyst, who said he did not want to be identified because he was not authorized to speak about sectarian strife, said the Ministry of Interior is on high alert with all personnel on call due to the instability in the Eastern Province.
Yet an uprising on the scale of Saudi Arabia’s neighbors is virtually impossible, he said.
“Shiites only make up 10 or 12 percent of the population, so their numbers are insufficient to really pose a serious security threat,” he told The Media Line. “But the government also recognizes the protests for what they really are: an external security threat to the stability of our country. Young people may say it is about jobs and participation in Saudi society, but it’s Iran that is stirring things up.”
Tensions between Sunnis and Shiites further increased with the July 8 shooting and arrest of Shiite Sheikh Nimr Baqr Al-Nimr near his home in Al-Awamiyah. Al-Nimr is the spiritual leader of the Shiite community and a frequent critic of the royal family, especially against Prince Nayef, the minister of interior, who died on June 16. Security forces arrested Al-Nimr on previous occasions for his outspoken views. He remains in custody and is said to be on a hunger strike.
Al-Nimr’s arrest was recorded on YouTube showing him bloodied from his wounds and laying in the backseat of a car as he was rushed to the hospital.
One Twitterer wrote after Al-Nimr’s arrest: “People of alqatif are cancel there widdings and partys Grief because the martyrs and because the goverment arrested shikh nimr al nimr.”
Another tweeted, “He is the moderate cleric who reasonably, bravely, religiously and loudly criticize the #Saudi government.”
King Abdullah has made efforts to soothe Saudi Arabia’s rocky relationship with Iran by inviting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the recent Islamic Solidarity Conference in Makkah. The king perhaps spent more time with Ahmadinejad than with other Muslim leaders. The king later sent his condolences to the Iranian leader following the recent earthquake that cost the lives of more than 300 people.
“I think the Saudi government truly wants Ahmadinejad as a friend of Saudi Arabia so Iran stops its meddling with the people in the Eastern Province,” said the Saudi analyst. “So it’s Iran’s move now.”