Ever since protests in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province were re-ignited by the arrest of Shiite cleric and opposition leader, Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr, in early July 2012, protesters have continued to voice their demands. Mainstream media and Western governments have, however, largely ignored the protests in the oil-rich region, a circumstance which is unlikely to change. Given the historic US-Saudi alliance, increased American reliance on Saudi oil, and the two states’ shared strategic interests in several regional countries rocked by the Arab Spring, including Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain, demands for political change in the oil-monarchy will likely continue to be ignored. While the protests remain limited and reported casualties from government violence are comparatively small, keeping an eye on the region is crucial.
Peter Fragiskatos, professor at the Western University in London, Canada, believes that although the protest movement is weak, it may be potentially devastating to both the Saudi ruling family and the world economy:
Calls for an end to Shiite discrimination, at least from the perspective of Saudi leaders, come off as disguised attempts to capture control over the Eastern Province, its oil and the system of domination it has made possible. This view persists despite the fact that the recent protests have not emphasized a desire for autonomy (although some Shiite activists have proposed reforms in the past, such as a constitution and legislative assembly for the Eastern Province, which hint at precisely this outcome).
Unsurprisingly, the Saudi authorities have not acted to change the status quo and continue to invest billions in military equipment — from fighter jets to tanks — that could be used to suppress an uprising. But ignoring Shiite grievances is bound to make the situation in the Eastern Province even more unstable, as the examples of Egypt, Libya and Syria all make clear.
Though the Shiite opposition is weak, it also has a potentially devastating trump card: access to vital oil pipeline networks that could easily be attacked if their plight remains unchanged. If and when that happens, there will be more at stake than a rise in oil price.
Chris Zambelis argues that “Saudi Arabia’s reaction to dissent among its Shi’a population provides insight into the way it interprets its evolving geopolitical position in a rapidly changing Middle East”:
Saudi Arabia also sees an Iranian hand behind Shi’a-led activism in the region. As evidenced by its decision to deploy security forces in neighboring Bahrain in March 2011 to crush an uprising led largely by a marginalized Shi’a majority that is agitating for greater freedoms under a Sunni-led, pro-Saudi monarchy, the Kingdom worries that its own Shi’a community will rise up in turn. Saudi Shi’a, many of whom maintain tribal and familial links with their Bahraini counterparts, organized protests in solidarity with Bahrainis while calling on Riyadh to remove its military from Bahrain (see Terrorism Monitor, June 15). In this regard, Saudi Arabia views the organized and sustained political opposition among its Shi’a community in the context of its regional rivalry with Iran.
Toby Matthiesen, a research fellow in Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Cambridge, queries the logic behind Nimr al-Nimr’s arrest in July 2012:
The protests in the Eastern Province had stopped, many youth activists were frustrated that after one and a half years of protests they had not achieved any political goals, bare the death of several martyrs and the mobilization of a particular segment of shabab, young men. Now, however, they have a new battle cry that they will use to mobilize other segments of Saudi Shiite society. But the calculations of the Saudi and perhaps U.S. security establishments seem to be that, with Nimr behind bars, the protests will eventually stop, and above all, in the event of a confrontation in the Gulf, a popular figure that could rally protesters is eliminated. It is difficult to predict which way things are going to turn out. But this untimely arrest, particularly after shooting the cleric in the leg, may well be a shot in the foot and give new momentum not just to the protest movement in Eastern Saudi Arabia, but also in Bahrain.
Lastly, Jadaliyya features an interview about the protest movement in the eastern province with a Saudi revolutionary:
We are a political youth group that seeks to establish a consultative and electoral ruling system that represents the will of the people. We aim to end dictatorial rule through organizing revolutionary and legal activities and popular protests in addition to providing a supportive media role. […]
We have the general support of different sectors of society, including religious figures and lawyers, among others. Women have also played a major role in organizing and mobilizing people. During the funerals of those who have been martyred, the most prominent slogan among the over one hundred thousand people was “death to Al Saud,” “Down with Nayef,” and “Down with Mohammad bin Fahd.” This is the real popular referendum on the “legitimacy” of the regime and the legitimacy for which the martyrs died. The damages sustained by the people as a result of the regime’s oppression, such as losing their jobs and humiliating them at random checkpoints, has two aspects. One reveals the truth about the illegitimacy of the regime which rules by punishing people for others’ crimes. The other side is that freedom and rights are not going to come to us on a golden plate, we must make sacrifices. […]
There is limited communication with activists in other regions of Saudi Arabia, with the purpose of exchanging specific strategies, but it has not reached the level of on the ground cooperation. People should categorize or classify our movement based on our goals, demands, and slogans. As we already mentioned, our cause and our goal is to establish an elected government that represents the will of the people, all the people. The electorate system of rule is not a Sunni or Shia idea or novelty. […]