Saudi Arabia has been grappling with a persistent domestic militancy problem for several months. Riyadh has not only increased domestic policing and intelligence activities, it also has established special counterterrorism courts to clear a backlog of thousands of arrests and has significantly increased executions. Jokes have emerged on regional social media outlets about the government posting job listings for additional executioners, but the spike in beheadings reflects the Saudis' growing unease about their domestic security situation.
Militants thought to be related to or inspired by the Islamic State have launched a spate of attacks in central, Sunni-dominated portions of the country, including Riyadh. Attacks (some deadly) against foreigners, drive-by shootings targeting police officers, disrupted suicide bombings and vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices all point to an increase in domestic militancy outside of the perennial Shiite criminal activity in the Eastern Province. The May 22 suicide bombing in al-Qudeeh, a predominantly Shiite town outside the city of Qatif, breaks with these established patterns of violence with worrying potential consequences for both Saudi domestic stability and global oil markets.
The Islamic State reportedly claimed the attack, which bears the hallmarks of Sunni militancy and plays to Riyadh's fears of domestic militancy progressing beyond the state's control. Al Qaeda's leadership has prohibited attacks on places of worship, and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has condemned Islamic State attacks on mosques in Yemen. With al Qaeda's Arabian Peninsula franchise directing the organization's jihadist activities in the kingdom, it is highly unlikely that the May 22 suicide bombing was related to al Qaeda.
However, the Islamic State has conducted similar attacks in Iraq, Syria and Yemen; another attack on a mosque in Yemen roughly coincided with the prayer-time suicide bombing in al-Qudeeh. Assuming the Islamic State inspired the attack, its sectarian nature fits with the Islamic State's anti-Shiite activity in both Syria and Iraq. More important, the potential strategic benefits far outweigh the 20 casualties the blast caused. Suicide attacks, specifically attacks with a strong sectarian element, have been used in mixed Sunni-Shiite areas in Iraq as a way to stoke sectarian friction and trigger increased fighting. As we have seen in Iraq and the Levant, this kind of unrest provides a fertile ground for groups such as the Islamic State to increase their recruitment and activities. The attack also creates an opportunity to aggravate tension between the Shiite camp and the Saudi government at a time when Saudi forces are involved in the international coalition carrying out airstrikes against Islamic State positions. Either way, unmitigated sectarian conflict near some of the world's largest oil deposits undermines the stability of both the Saudi state and regional oil markets.
Saudi Arabia's Shiite community will seek retribution, potentially through violence against Sunni targets or suspected Islamic State sympathizers. Riyadh will need to respond quickly to prevent broader sectarian bloodshed, especially considering the proximity of any fighting to the vast majority of the Saudis' oil production. Saudi forces likely will have a stronger presence in the region to serve the kingdom's domestic security needs, but the Shiite communities will chafe under increased security measures, and more radical Shiite elements are likely to distrust government intentions. Although the attack gives Riyadh cover to increase security and intelligence-gathering activities in the region, any additional attacks on Shiite targets risk inspiring reprisal attacks against Sunnis — including security forces — in an already tense sectarian climate.
The kingdom's leadership — especially Crown Prince Mohammad bin Nayef, longtime head of Saudi counterterrorism activities — is keen to present a decisive counter to regional militancy, on Saudi soil in particular. Riyadh will be motivated to respond quickly to prevent reprisal attacks, but local Shiite communities are unlikely to rely solely on the state to guarantee justice. Meanwhile, neighboring Iran will keep a close eye on the situation.