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Nov 23, 2011 | 20:07 GMT

7 mins read

Growing Shiite Unrest in Saudi Arabia

AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
Summary
Unrest is simmering in Saudi Arabia's Shiite-concentrated, oil-rich Eastern Province following the deaths of three young Shia, allegedly at the hands of local police. With sectarian tensions already on the rise, not only in Saudi Arabia but in the wider region, an upcoming Shiite holiday from Nov. 26 to Dec. 5 could provide an opportunity for religious processions in eastern Saudi Arabia to take on a political dimension — a scenario that likely already has the Saudi kingdom on alert for signs of Iranian exploitation.
Shiite protests continued Nov. 23 in the Qatif region of Saudi Arabia's Shiite-concentrated, oil-rich Eastern Province. The demonstrations follow claims by Shiite activists that two young Shiite men and a Shiite girl died in clashes with Saudi security forces Nov. 20-21. Though Saudi officials have disputed accounts of the incidents, their greater concern is the potential for the deaths to further inflame sectarian tensions in eastern Saudi Arabia amid Iran's region-wide push for influence. With the Shiite holiday of Muharram beginning on Nov. 26 and continuing through Dec. 5, Riyadh will attempt to prevent religious gatherings from becoming political events and will be closely watching for signs of Iranian involvement.

An Emerging Trend in the Unrest?

Shiite activists speaking to media outlets allege that a 19-year-old man was found dead in the town of Shwika on Nov. 20 near a police checkpoint. The victim's father claimed that police told him that his son was killed by stray gunfire after a group of youths shot at the police, though a witness said one of the police officers at the checkpoint appeared to intentionally shoot the victim, the father said. Shiite activists then claimed that protest marches held in response to the young man's death turned deadly when another young man and a girl in the nearby Shiite town of al-Awamiyah in Qatif were allegedly killed. The two were reportedly hit by crossfire when security forces were trying to break up the demonstrations. A spokesman for the Saudi Interior Ministry, Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki, confirmed the first young man's death in the Nov. 20 incident, claiming police found his body after firing on youths who were burning tires at a construction site. Al-Turki said the youths used the fire to attract the attention of police and then started throwing Molotov cocktails at them. He said Saudi police had not yet determined how the young man was killed, but he said that another person had died in the hospital Nov. 21 after being taken there by "unknown people" and that two other protesters were in the hospital being treated for their wounds. The Interior Ministry also claimed that, during the demonstrations, men riding on motorcycles fired live ammunition at police. This latest spate of Shiite unrest follows a similar incident in which the state-run Saudi Press Agency (SPA) uncharacteristically reported a disturbance Oct. 3. In that incident, a group of rioters, some of whom were on motorcycles and carrying improvised incendiary devices, gathered at a roundabout in al-Awamiyah and reportedly fired automatic weapons at security forces, wounding nine. The SPA claimed at the time that the protests were started at the behest of a "foreign country," implying Iran. This succession of events could indicate an emerging trend in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province in which some Shiite activists may be trying to provoke Saudi security forces into heavy-handed crackdowns. The resulting deaths lead to funeral processions and demonstrations, drawing more Shia to the streets. This creates a bigger security dilemma for police, who are caught between needing to contain the demonstrations and trying to avoid giving cause for further unrest through their crackdowns. This is a dangerous cycle that the Saudi authorities are likely going to have an increasingly difficult time containing, especially in the current geopolitical climate.

Difficult Timing for Riyadh

With the United States just weeks away from completing its withdrawal of forces from Iraq, the threat of Iran expanding its sphere of influence has become the paramount concern for Saudi Arabia, the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, the United States, Turkey and Israel. Tehran intends to take advantage of the United States' distractions and Saudi Arabia's vulnerabilities to leverage its current strong position and reshape the regional balance of power in favor of Iran and the wider Shiite community. Iran can attempt to do this through a variety of means, including intimidation tactics that rely on its extensive network of covert assets arrayed throughout the region. Though Iran's covert capabilities in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain still appear to be limited, most worrisome for Saudi Arabia — not to mention the oil markets — is the potential for Iran to exploit already simmering Shiite dissent in eastern Arabia to try to drive its Saudi adversaries toward an accommodation that recognizes Iran's growing regional clout. The reaction in the region to the Iranian threat has thus manifested itself in a number of ways in the weeks leading up to the U.S. deadline for withdrawal from Iraq. In early October the United States revealed an alleged Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington. Soon thereafter, an International Atomic Energy Agency report on Iranian progress toward a nuclear weapon prompted rumors of an impending Israeli military strike against Iran and spurred a fresh sanctions campaign. On Nov. 12 a large explosion at an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps missile base near Tehran fueled speculation of an Israeli sabotage attack. That same day, the Bahraini government went public with its discovery of an alleged plot targeting government and Saudi diplomatic targets in Bahrain. The political crisis in Syria has meanwhile become the focus of a regional containment strategy against Iran.

Watching for an Iranian Hand

With the amount of activity surrounding Iran growing, Shiite unrest in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province warrants closer attention. So far Iranian covert activity in these areas has been limited, likely due to Iran's still limited capabilities and the success the security apparatuses in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have had in buffering against external meddling. But Iran's increasing confidence in Iraq affords it the time to build up its assets in eastern Saudi Arabia and in Bahrain, relying on the long-term trend of growing Shiite dissent to allow it space to operate. This is exactly what Saudi Arabia and its GCC allies want to avoid at all costs, but as the events over the past few days in Qatif reveal, the authorities are struggling to contain Shiite unrest within their borders. Compounding matters for the Saudi and Bahraini authorities is the upcoming Shiite mourning period of Muharram from Nov. 26 to Dec. 5, when Shia gather in large processions to commemorate the death of Imam Hussain ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed. Religious tensions run high during this period, particularly on Ashoura, the 10th day of mourning, which falls on Dec. 5. Political demonstrations against the ruling Sunni al-Khalifa family in Bahrain have increased in recent days, and the ongoing protests in Qatif raise the potential for these religious processions to turn into acts of political protest. Given the political sensitivities of the day, the Saudi and Bahraini governments will be especially wary of the backlash that could ensue should they crack down on Shiite demonstrations during Muharram. Still, there remains strong potential for violent clashes between Shiite demonstrators and security forces in the coming days. Whether Iran has the ability to exploit the Shiite unrest in eastern Arabia remains to be seen, but the geopolitical climate is certainly working in Tehran's favor.

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