Generally, Sunni attacks against Shia are fairly common throughout the Middle East and South Asia, especially now during the holy month of Muharram. But that is not the case in Saudi Arabia, where sectarian violence typically takes place between state security forces and unruly Shia. If non-state Salafist actors are now attacking Shia, it means Riyadh could be burdened with yet another violent group to contain.
Saudi leaders are trying to contain the Shia community to temper the rise of Iran and its Arab Shia allies in Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain and, more recently, Yemen. Sentencing al-Nimr to death was a key part of Riyadh’s strategy toward this end, and the Saudis have been bracing for backlash as Shia across the region, particularly Iran, have reacted against the kingdom, warning it of dire consequences. The last thing Riyadh needs is non-state Salafist elements clashing with the Shia, undermining the efforts of the state and further degenerating its relations abroad.
Whoever is responsible for the Nov. 3 attack understands that their actions do indeed complicate the state’s strategy, and jihadists affiliated with either al Qaeda or the Islamic State have an incentive to do so. If either of these groups is behind the attacks, then the events of Nov. 3 suggest only that they have expanded their target set. However, tactics used in the attack suggest that Salafist tribesmen with close ties to the religious establishment might have been the culprits. If true, then the attack is far more consequential. At the very least, the Saudi regime cannot fight jihadists if elements from the tribal and religious establishments are going rogue, engaging in unsanctioned acts of violence. But the Saudi state must also contend with a deeper malaise.
The threat of the Islamic State and the advancement of social reform have created tension between the monarchy and some parts of the religious establishment. Ultraconservatives are worried that social reform will empower more liberal elements of the kingdom at their expense and that the Shia will gain ground accordingly. Yet, though the government is willing to concede some social issues, it does not want the Shia to take advantage of the reforms either — nor does it want liberals to demand political reform.
The Saudis cannot achieve the desired balance between these various forces if non-state elements begin to act unilaterally without the state’s consent. Riyadh has enough to worry about with Yemen’s al-Houthi Zaidi movement emerging as the primary stakeholder to the kingdom’s south and with the existing Shia movement in Bahrain.
Saudi Arabia's Shia are adversaries of the government, but Riyadh must maintain a peaceful relationship with the group to better its relationship with Tehran. Attacks by non-state Salafist actors compromise this peace. In essence, the Nov. 3 attack reveals Saudi Arabia's contradictions: It is a Salafist state that must fight extremist Salafists at home and abroad to contain its domestic and regional Shia adversaries.