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Oct 4, 2011 | 22:37 GMT

5 mins read

Shiite Unrest in Saudi Arabia and Iranian Ambitions

KARIM JAAFAR/AFP/Getty Images
The Saudi Press Agency (SPA), Saudi Arabia's state-run news agency, reported a disturbance Oct. 3 in the village of al-Awamiyah, Qatif county, in the country's Eastern Province. According to the SPA, a group of rioters, some of whom were on motorcycles and carrying improvised incendiary devices, gathered at a roundabout in al-Awamiyah and reportedly shot automatic weapons at security forces, wounding nine. The SPA claimed the protests were started at the behest of a "foreign country." The SPA report is significant — Saudi Arabia does not normally publicize unrest such as the Oct. 3 incident — as is its mention of a foreign country, which is most likely a reference to Iran. The incident also comes amid several other Iran-related developments in Riyadh's neighborhood, such as revived protests in Bahrain and a statement from the leader of Yemen's al-Houthi rebel group on Iranian state television calling Saudi Arabia "an enemy to the Muslim world." While these are ostensibly separate events, Riyadh likely will interpret them as potentially coordinated by Iran to challenge Saudi security and as a reminder that such threats continue to exist. (click here to enlarge image) One key battleground between Tehran and Riyadh has been in Bahrain, where Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) forces were deployed in March to crack down on months of Iranian-influenced Shiite unrest. Then, after six months of relative calm, protests flared again over issues surrounding Sept. 24 parliamentary by-elections. Though Bahrain and the GCC were much better prepared for the protests than they had been earlier in the year and demonstrations failed to reach previous levels, a heightened state of unrest has persisted. Amid these increased tensions was an overt gesture by Bahrain to negotiate with Iran. On Sept. 26, on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly meeting, Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa met with his Iranian counterpart, Ali Akbar Salehi, to discuss improving bilateral relations, with al-Khalifa asking that Iranian state media portray Bahrain in a more positive light. This meeting, the first between the two foreign ministers since the beginning of this year's Bahraini unrest, indicates Bahrain's desire to pacify its Shiite opposition by improving ties with Iran. Tehran will ask a price for such amelioration, most likely in the form of the removal of most or all GCC forces from Bahrain — something to which the Saudis are vehemently opposed. However, as recent events show, Tehran potentially has more potent levers against Riyadh than Bahrain. One of Riyadh's main motivations in helping to crack down on Bahraini protesters is preventing the spread of large-scale Shiite unrest into Saudi Arabia. Thus, the presence of rioters in the Shiite-majority Eastern Province, especially rioters armed with automatic weapons and incendiary devices, is an indication to Saudi Arabia that it is not immune to Shiite uprisings, either. The Oct. 3 incident comes after a series of small-scale protests in the Eastern Province over the past several days that have been met by what residents have described as brutal crackdowns by Saudi forces. Over the past year, Shiite protesters in the province have staged several rallies in support of Bahraini demonstrations, calling for the withdrawal of GCC forces in Bahrain. Although the Oct. 3 incident was small and by all accounts manageable for the Saudi government, it still has captured Riyadh's attention. The SPA's claim of these rioters being influenced by a foreign country may not be true, but the fact that the incident coincided with continued unrest in Bahrain is notable and could be a signal to Riyadh of Tehran's capabilities inside Saudi Arabia. Also notable for its timing is the interview aired Oct. 4 by Iran's state-run Press TV with the leader of Yemen's al-Houthi rebels, Mohamed Badreddin al-Houthi, wherein he called Saudi Arabia "an enemy to the entire Muslim world." The al-Houthis, who practice a branch of Shiite Islam, have expressed anti-Saudi sentiment in the past, but the fact that it was released less than 24 hours after the incident in al-Awamiyah could be a warning from Iran that Saudi Arabia could face a spillover of Shiite unrest from Yemen as well as from Bahrain. Even if the timing is coincidental, the broadcast still was clearly intended to put Saudi Arabia on the defensive. Though Saudi Arabia has expressed much consternation at Iran's attempts to grow its influence in the Persian Gulf, it may not have much choice. Riyadh understands that action needs to be taken to help Bahrain return to normalcy and to keep Shiite dissent at bay — both in Bahrain and in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province. Coincidence or not, Riyadh is certainly feeling pressure from these recent events, but it remains to be seen whether it will attempt an accommodation with Iran.

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