Unrest in Saudi Arabia's Shiite-concentrated, oil-rich Eastern Province began in February 2011, when Shiite protesters began calling for the release of long-held Shiite political prisoners. That demand was soon echoed by a call for political reforms, including increased rights for Shia. In the first months of simmering unrest, Shiite protesters largely abstained from violence against Saudi security forces. The first instances of violence directed toward security forces and admittedly led by Shiite activists occurred in October and November 2011, with the most recent incidents taking place this past week. Such admissions were apparently made to invite a strong reprisal, thus prolonging the unrest by creating more opportunities for funeral marches and public protests.
The continuation of such events would bear two key implications. First, continued violence would cement a new trend among at least a portion of the Shiite uprisings in the Eastern Province, as a violent and possibly armed uprising replaces a tactical approach leading to largely nonviolent demonstrations. Second, intensified violence could provide an opportunity for Iran to try to exploit the unrest. Current security tactics have not kept security forces safe or protesters at bay, but in order to avoid further inciting Shia, security forces will likely meet the increased violence by amplifying those same tactics.
Violent Clashes Between Activists and Security Forces
The first anomalous clash between security forces and activists occurred Oct. 3, when a police station in the Eastern Province was reportedly attacked with guns and Molotov cocktails. Eleven police officers were among the 14 injured in the attack. After the incident, prominent Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr said in a sermon that some protesters used guns and that such actions were not acceptable. Though Saudi officials have been blaming clashes between security forces and protesters on provocations by the protesters, this was the first time during the course of the unrest that Saudi Shia admitted to using violence against Saudi security forces. The attack sparked a Saudi security crackdown, which led to increased Shiite protests. During these demonstrations, pro-Shiite news correspondents for the first time reported that some protesters threw stones and damaged vehicles in response to the police crackdown.
October's incidents were not isolated. In November, the Saudi Interior Ministry claimed that Shia attacked security forces with Molotov cocktails and gunfire. However, these accusations were not met by admissions by individuals from the Shiite community. After that incident, reports of Shiite aggression toward security forces were absent, until recently.
The Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported Jan. 13 that security forces patrolling al-Awamiya — a village in the Qatif governorate in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province — were attacked with Molotov cocktails and fired upon, which caused a security vehicle to catch fire. In the same report, SPA said demonstrators threw stones at security forces in al-Awamiya, triggering the forces to fire live ammunition; one Shiite man was killed and two others were injured. Pro-Shiite media admitted that some protesters threw stones at security forces but said the vehicle that caught fire did so after colliding with another security vehicle. This incident continued the string of reports, by both Shiite and Saudi state media, indicating that Shia used at least some form of violence against security forces.
Finally, on Jan. 14, SPA reported an assault by unknown perpetrators on security forces, resulting in the injury of a Saudi security member. Several clerics and province officials in the Eastern Province have condemned those responsible for the attack, and the SPA has so far abstained from blaming individual groups, Shiite or otherwise.
An Opportunity for Iran
The increased aggression in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province is noteworthy, especially at a time when Iran is attempting to consolidate and expand Shiite influence in the region. Since the beginning of the unrest in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province and Shiite-majority, Sunni-led Bahrain, Saudi Arabia has been quick to blame disturbances on Iran. There is no hard evidence pointing to Iran's instigating Shiite unrest in the Eastern Province. However, as we continue to monitor the situation, it will be important to note whether this trend of violence toward Saudi security forces continues or even intensifies. Iran faces many limitations in Saudi Arabia, and Tehran's ability to wield its patronage networks in the Eastern Province is unknown. This will not stop Tehran from looking for opportunities to exploit Shiite unrest.
It remains to be seen whether, for how long and on what scale the violence in the Eastern Province against Saudi security forces will persist. It will be important to see which groups are responsible — whether they be unaffiliated, disgruntled Shiite Saudi citizens, or individuals within a larger resistance network.
It is important to remember that Saudi Arabia has so far proved effective in quickly shutting down protests in the Eastern Province. Demonstrations usually consist of anywhere between 50 to a couple hundred individuals, and they reportedly occur two or three times each week. If a protest becomes too large, security forces are quick to disperse demonstrators by using either tear gas or rubber bullets, or even by shooting live ammunition in the direction of protesters.
Another technique used by the regime since the beginning of the unrest to keep protests at bay has been the almost weekly arrest of Shiite activists, human rights activists and even Shiite clerics whom the Saudis perceive might threaten the stability of the provinces. The Saudi regime also continues to strategically shut down mosques accused of inciting Shia and to temporarily seal off checkpoints and entrances and exits in restive areas. Finally, in its attempts to manage agitated Shia, the Saudi regime has historically sought to co-opt those members of the Ulema council (Islamic clergy) in the Eastern Province who maintain sway over the teachings of various clerics and mosques, in order to monitor and quell any radical Shiite sermons and teachings. During the course of the unrest, security forces have exercised calculated caution, trying not to crack down too harshly so as not to further rouse protesters.
It is clear that the current tactics are neither successfully keeping Shiite protesters at bay nor keeping Saudi security forces out of danger. Therefore, more arrests and mosque shutdowns can be expected, while an influx of security forces will likely enter the region to help pacify unstable areas and secure their own forces — all while delicately following a balancing act in the crackdown to avoid further provoking Shia.