Saudi security forces probably did not realize that their arrests of two elderly men in their 70s in the village of Awamiyah in the Eastern Province on the night of 3 October would lead to riots in this Shia-majority area for two nights running, injuring 14 people, including ten policemen.
Saleh al Zayed, 72 years old, was one of the men arrested, in an attempt by police to force his son and that of the other man, accused of participating in anti-government protests, to surrender. Zayed suffered a heart attack, the news of which ignited the violent protests outside the police station in which Shia youths threw Molotov cocktails and fired guns at security forces. Videos uploaded to YouTube showed groups of young Saudis, their faces covered by t-shirts, taunting police and blocking roads with empty oil barrels and bonfires.
Comprising roughly ten percent of the kingdom’s population of 23 million, the two million Shia live mostly in the oil-rich Eastern Province, and have been protesting regularly for more freedom ever since Saudi forces were dispatched to neighboring Bahrain in March to help the ruling Sunni Al-Khalifas put down the Shia-led protests there.
Shias have long faced discrimination in Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia which follows a very conservative Wahhabi interpretation of the religion, in which Shia are considered heretics. Human Rights Watch in a 2009 report called on the kingdom to set up a national committee to ensure that Shias had equal access to higher education, equality in employment, including in the security forces, high ministerial positions, and freedom of worship. Unfortunately, to date little has been done to improve the situation of the Shias.
The Saudi Interior Ministry slammed the latest riot, blaming the violence on "a group of outlaws and rioters on motorbikes," who had gathered in Awamiyah near the city of Qatif "carrying petrol bombs". It vowed to use an "iron fist" in dealing with such disturbances, and blamed the riot on incitement "from a foreign country that aims to undermine the nation’s security and stability," according to the Saudi Press Agency. This is usually taken as code-language for meaning Iran was behind the unrest.
Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr of Awamiyah, a prominent Shia cleric, was quick to call for calm, urging protesters to use "words" rather than "bullets" in their fight for more freedom and equality. "The (Saudi) authorities depend on bullets…and killing and imprisonment. We must depend on the roar of the word, on the words of justice," said Nimr in his sermon on the night of 4 October. He said the youth were provoked into rioting after police fired live bullets at them.
Saudi Arabia has not been immune to the uprisings across the Arab world this year, with protests called for by women demanding the right to drive in March. But the authorities responded with massive shows of force, placing hundreds of armed police on the streets of major cities to deter any protests. King Abdullah, the absolute monarch, also recently announced a financial aid package worth $35 billion, which includes higher salaries for government workers, the building of more subsidized housing for less-well-off Saudis and payments for the unemployed.
Some analysts said they were not surprised at the unrest in the Shia-majority areas, and said they expected more demonstrations in the future unless the conditions of the Shia were improved.
"I can’t say I was surprised," said Alex Vatanka of the Washington-based Middle East Institute. "This is after all something that has taken place on a periodic basis. It has only intensified due to the broader momentum unleashed by the Arab Spring and perhaps also due to the Shia mobilization next door in Bahrain."
On the other hand, Tawfiq Alsaif, a prominent Shia intellectual in the Eastern Province, said he was surprised by the scale of the Awamiyah riots, and stressed that the economic development of the depressed area would do much to alleviate tensions.
"What has surprised me was the scale of the incident on the one hand, and the politically-poor response of the state, on the other," said Alsaif. "Awamiyah is a town with long-standing economic and social problems. Located just 600 meters from some oil fields, it is very much underdeveloped, and has a high rate of unemployment, and poor health, transport and education services. Thus, for at least the past four decades, it has been known as a hotspot, both socially and politically. During the last five years, Qatif Municipal Council has made an attempt to restructure the town as a step to eliminate poverty and improve public services. The Ministry of Finance has already agreed to part of the project that is expected to be carried out in the coming four years. Therefore, we should not ignore the political and economic sources of tension," he concluded.
Jane Kinninmont, a senior research fellow at Chatham House in London, said there were many similarities between what Shias in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia were calling for, even if Shias are the majority in Bahrain and have historically enjoyed more freedom than their Saudi counterparts.
"There are particular grievances among Saudi Shia over their lack of religious freedom and a perception that they are treated as second-class citizens," said Kinninmont. "Many Shia citizens in both Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are deeply offended by their governments’ history of treating them as though they are somehow disloyal. And many Saudi Shia were alarmed to see their government send tanks into Bahrain to support the Bahrain government as it crushed a peaceful uprising there."
So far, Shia protests in Saudi Arabia have been limited to small groups of younger Saudis, unlike in Bahrain where Shias of all ages took the streets in massive protests this past spring. Some analysts give credit to older Shias in the Eastern Province for calming the spirits of the young, but for how long this will continue is uncertain, though it does seem clear that neither the Saudi government nor the Shia community want their confrontations to reach the scale of those in Bahrain.
"Saudi Shia have been quiet compared to Shia in Bahrain," said Simon Henderson, director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "I believe this is because the elders in their community have urged restraint. The future depends on whether the elders will continue this policy, and whether the elders will continue to have influence and control over their youth."
With King Abdullah already 87, and Crown Prince Sultan also in his 80s, the next in succession is hawkish Interior Minister Prince Naif, who has always bristled at Iran. This could bode ill for the Shia.
"Many Shia in Saudi Arabia, especially the older generation, regard King Abdullah as somebody who has tried to improve the living standards of the Shia community. However, Prince Naif is significantly less popular among the Shia community and many are concerned that they will suffer further marginalization after he comes to the throne," noted Kinninmont.
Henderson said that the Saudi government could show goodwill towards its Shia community by appointing a Shia minister and spending more money in the Eastern Province, but noted that neither is likely.
"The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran is set in the historical context of the rivalry between Sunni and Shia Islam. The events in Bahrain, and to a lesser extent in Qatif governorate, are the frontline of these rivalries," explained Henderson.
Saudi Shias have been well aware of the attempts by some in the Saudi government to link them to Iran, the regional Shia powerhouse, and have therefore gone to great lengths to emphasize their independence, both spiritual and financial, from the Iranian mullahs. Even so, it is doubtful that these efforts will be able to shield them from further intrigues in the ongoing battle for influence in the Arab world between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Al-Ahram Weekly Online : Located at: http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2011/1068/re9.htm