Improvised incendiary devices such as Molotov cocktails were first used against Saudi security forces in demonstrations in Eastern Province in October 2011, during which unknown gunmen reportedly shot at security forces. However, since March 2012, protests have been infrequent — there have been only a few reported demonstrations each month — and the use of violence against authorities has declined.
This dynamic changed July 8 with the arrest of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent Shiite cleric. Three days later, 37 Shiite clerics in Eastern Province signed a joint statement calling for the government to end sectarian discrimination and to implement significant reforms. In light of the spiraling events in Syria, the timing of al-Nimr's arrest suggests that it was likely an attempt by Riyadh to pre-empt any possible Iranian move to exploit Shiite unrest in Saudi Arabia. But the move backfired, resulting in near-daily protests, fires set in the streets, and renewed use of improvised incendiary devices against security forces.
More concerning for the Saudi government, the Shiite opposition in Eastern Province have used social media to spread digital flyers promoting violence, mimicking a campaign by one of Bahrain's most violent opposition groups. The flyers promote the use of Molotov cocktails against security patrols and the setting of large fires in the streets to block the movements of soldiers and armored vehicles. Bahrain's February 14 Movement distributed flyers with a similar graphic design and message in January 2012. The February 14 Movement later began constructing pipe bombs and conducting widespread arson attacks.
The Saudi opposition could be merely observing and copying its counterparts in Bahrain, but it is more likely that the groups are cooperating. Saudi opposition groups have advertised planned demonstrations and activities organized by the February 14 Movement and have even held sit-ins in solidarity with Bahraini protesters. Similarly, the February 14 Movement staged daily rallies in Bahrain during the week of July 15 in support of the Eastern Province protesters. The exchange of support and expertise about protest tactics between the groups could lead each to stage more aggressive, more organized demonstrations.
An Iranian Role?
The bigger question is whether Tehran is helping facilitate the protests in these strategically significant countries. Since the beginning of the unrest in Saudi Arabia, Riyadh has accused Iran of interfering and encouraging Shiite opposition groups in both Bahrain and Eastern Province. The extent of Iran's leverage among Shia in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia is still unclear, but at least in Bahrain, many prominent Shiite clerics have long-time connections to Iranian clerics.
In June, the Bahraini government disbanded the opposition group Amal for allegedly inciting violence. A month later, a Bahraini National Security Agency officer said in court that Iraqi Shiite cleric Sayed Hadi Ahmed al-Madrasi had instructed Bahrainis to take up arms against the al-Khalifa government. Al-Madrasi is the leader of the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain, which gave birth to Amal, and he led an Iranian-backed coup attempt against the Bahraini leadership in 1981. In 1985, al-Madrasi allegedly helped establish Bahrain's most prominent underground militant organization, Bahraini Hezbollah, which is believed to coordinate with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' Quds Force. Given al-Madrasi's ties to Iran and Amal, as well as Amal's alleged role in the violent demonstrations, Bahrain is particularly important to watch to gauge Iranian influence on the protests.
The weakening of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad is a setback for Iran's regional ambitions. The Saudis and Qataris have been at the forefront of the overt foreign campaign to undermine al Assad's regime. Riyadh and Doha hoped to minimize Iran's role in the region. In response, Tehran can be expected to utilize whatever levers of influence it has in Eastern Province and Bahrain. Thus, the levels of unrest and the adoption of violent tactics — or lack thereof — in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain could demonstrate the magnitude of Iran's influence in these areas.