A Shiite cleric was arrested in Saudi Arabia's oil-rich Eastern Province on Feb. 27 after calling for a constitutional monarchy during a Friday sermon. The arrest, likely a pre-emptive move on the Saudi government's part as it watches unrest sweep through the Persian Gulf region, could end up sparking protests among the kingdom's Shiite minority and raise the threat of an Iranian-backed destabilization campaign.
In what could be a red flag that unrest is spreading to the Saudi kingdom, a human rights activist of indeterminate reliability reported March 1 that Saudi authorities had detained a Shiite cleric in the Eastern Province on Feb. 27. The cleric was arrested in the oil-rich and Shiite-heavy province after he delivered a Friday sermon calling for a constitutional monarchy. Saudi Arabia has been watching with extreme concern as a wave of unrest in the Persian Gulf region has hit Bahrain, where a Sunni monarchy presides over a Shiite majority; Oman, where the ruling sultanate is facing rare and widespread civil unrest; and Yemen, where the embattled president's political crisis is threatening to stir unrest among the Ismaili sect in Saudi Arabia's southwestern Jizan and Najran provinces. Meanwhile, the governments of Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, which have Shiite populations of roughly 10, 5 to 10 and 15 percent, respectively, have been pre-emptively promising political reform and increasing subsidies in an attempt to keep unrest from spreading to their countries. Saudi Arabia has feared that the instability rocking the region would eventually find its way to the kingdom's Eastern Province, where most of the country's oil fields are located and where its Shia — an estimated 15 percent of the total population — are concentrated. Though Saudi Arabia has taken steps to assimilate its minority Shiite population into the system, Saudi Shia have long complained of religious persecution and discrimination. They have also been extremely cautious about voicing those complaints, fearing a harsh government response. A human rights activist told Reuters on March 1 that Shiite cleric Tawfiq al-Amir delivered a Friday sermon Feb. 25 in the Eastern Province town of Al Hofuf. Usually, the local rights activist claimed, the cleric would voice complaints about religious freedoms, but in that sermon he called for a constitutional monarchy. That call has been echoed in recent days by a group of Saudi intellectuals who have become part of a fledgling movement in the kingdom. These groups have e-mailed petitions and supported Facebook groups calling for protests March 11 and March 20 to demand political and social reforms. Calls for a constitutional monarchy date back to the early 1990s, when disparate groups such as the Wahhabi ulema, liberal and Islamist academics, and Shia rose up against the Saudi royals after the first Gulf War. Then-King Fahd instituted the Basic Law — Saudi Arabia's first-ever written constitution — in 1992 and created a Consultative Assembly whose members are appointed by the king and consist mostly of the ulema, or religious class, which is loyal to al-Saud. So far, the Facebook groups calling for reform, which do not yet appear to be linked in any significant way to the Shiite community in the east, have numbered around 12,000, while Saudi authorities have relied on such social networking groups to round up alleged dissenters. The Shiite cleric likely made the call for a constitutional monarchy knowing he would be arrested — and might have arranged to notify human rights activists to draw attention to the issue. Though a small step, it could put the Saudi authorities in a serious bind. As his case is publicized by local human rights activists talking to major news agencies, Shiite protesters could take to the streets to demand his release. If he is released, then the Saudis could appear vulnerable and more demands could be made. If the cleric is not released in the face of protests, small rallies could develop into full-fledged demonstrations. Saudi Arabia not only has to fear instability in the Eastern Province, but it also must guard against its main rival in the Persian Gulf, Iran, which could use its levers within the Saudi Shia to destabilize the royal regime. While there are no clear and obvious links between the protest organizers in the Persian Gulf countries, STRATFOR is watching closely for signs that Iran could be using the spark provided by the North African unrest as a cover to fuel demonstrations in its immediate Arab neighborhood, where the oil supply is abundant and where the United States hosts critical military facilities. The arrest of the Shiite cleric in the Eastern Province is evidently a move by Saudi authorities to pre-empt such a nightmare scenario. However, as the demonstrations in Libya and Bahrain have shown, the arrest of one human rights activist — or, in this case, a Shiite cleric — could easily develop into a rallying cry for protests, especially when such protests are in the strategic interest of a nearby rival power.