Saudi Arabia has seen rare unrest from its Shiite minority in the past several days. Given the current domestic and regional dynamics, Iran could be behind these protests. More importantly, however, they seem part and parcel of a larger ethno-sectarian conflict brewing in the Middle East.
Members of Saudi Arabia's Shiite minority protested Feb. 25 in the kingdom's oil-rich Eastern Province, with demonstrators displaying rare anti-government slogans. This unrest follows similar disturbances since Feb. 20 in the holy city of Medina, where Shiite pilgrims clashed with Saudi Arabia's ideological security force, the hard-line Wahhabi Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. The unrest was triggered when personnel from the religious police, also called the Mutawwa, filmed female Shiite pilgrims outside a sacred cemetery, which led the women's male relatives to demand the film. This led to the arrests of the Shia, which then engendered protests from larger crowds of Shia. While the Saudi authorities are still trying to make sense of the unrest, the kingdom's most prominent Shiite cleric, Sheikh Hassan al-Saffar, issued a statement calling for the end of anti-Shiite actions by the authorities. As much as 15 percent to 20 percent of Saudi Arabia's population belongs to the Shiite sect. The Sunni majority, which adheres to the ultraconservative Wahhabi school of thought, largely considers the Shia to be heretics. Despite this religious schism, the kingdom has for the most part remained free of any serious Shiite unrest. The largest occurrence of sectarian violence in the kingdom took place in 1987, when Saudi security forces killed 400 Shiite protesters (a majority of whom were believed to be Iranian nationals) in an attempt to control an unauthorized demonstration in the holy city of Mecca. Since the founding of the Islamic Republic of Iran during the 1979 revolution, the Saudis have feared that Tehran would use the kingdom's Shiite minority to undermine the Saudi state and enhance Iranian influence — a fear magnified by the fact that the Shia are concentrated in Saudi Arabia's oil-rich Eastern Province along the Persian Gulf. Until the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and the subsequent regime change in Baghdad, the Saudis took comfort from the fact that the Baathist regime in Iraq served as a bulwark against Iranian/Shiite expansionism across the Persian Gulf. When Baathist Iraq was replaced by a Shia-dominated regime heavily influenced by Tehran, the Saudis' worst nightmare was revived. One way the Saudis have been trying to deal with the fear that the kingdom's Shiite minority could become an Iranian fifth column is by co-opting the Shia — part and parcel of Saudi King Abdullah's strategic plans for reform. While the reforms were instituted to deal with jihadists and the larger problem of religious extremism, one of the unintended consequences of the reform project is that it has provided the space for the Saudi Shia to advance their communal interests. The Saudi Shia are encouraged not only by the opening up at home, but also by the regional climate, in which Iran is the vanguard of the Shia's struggle to assert themselves. However, the reforms in Saudi Arabia have created the possibility of backlash against Riyadh from elements within the Wahhabi religious establishment who do not like losing their influence amid the social changes. An assertive Shiite minority acts as salt on the wounds of the hard-line Wahhabis. This increases the probability of sectarian violence in the kingdom, which can be exploited by both Sunni and Shiite opponents of the regime. It is unclear whether the Iranians were behind the recent disturbances, but they are certainly going to try to exploit them to their advantage. For the Saudis, the Shiite unrest complicates matters both at home, where the royal family is already having a hard time managing change, and in the region, where it is trying to contain an emergent Iran.