Saudi Arabia’s eastern coast has had a strong Shi’a presence since the third Hijri century (tenth century CE) when a group of extreme Shi’a separatists known as the Qarmatians made the region their kingdom. The Qarmatians attempted to establish a radical utopia, disclaiming traditional Islamic rules and using the eastern region as a base for raids against the larger Islamic world. A particular target of these attacks was the holy city of Mecca, from which the Qarmatians famously stole the black stone of the Ka’aba. Following the end of Qarmatian rule, the region was ruled by a succession of small Shi’a dynasties, many under the auspices of larger empires. In the 14th century CE, Ibn Battuta reported that the region remained dominated by adherents of Shi’ism. Today Shargiyya, as the eastern region is known, is home to more than 2.5 million Saudis, according to the government’s 2004 Census. With Shi’a making up more than a third of this population, the region boasts the largest concentration of Shiites in the Kingdom.

Interactions between the Shi’a of Shargiyya and the Saudi state are influenced by the government’s adherence to Wahhabism. This conservative brand of Islam, Saudi Arabia’s official religion, views all Shi’a as, at best, heretics and, at worst, apostates or polytheists. This distaste for Shi’ism was first embodied by the Ikhwan, an informal military force that supported the efforts of Saudi Arabia’s first ruler, Abdul Aziz al-Saud, in building the modern Saudi state in the early twentieth century. Comprised of Wahhabi religious zealots, the Ikhwan destroyed shrines and other Shi’a places of worship both inside and outside Saudi Arabia, and supported the forcible conversion of Shi’a to the more acceptable Sunni belief system.

In recent years, numerous international organizations, including the Minorities at Risk Project, the International Crisis Group, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch, have exposed the ongoing discrimination faced by Saudi’s Shi’a population, including social, political, and employment-based discrimination. Shi’as are frequently denied access to justice by the Sunni-majority criminal courts, are regularly defamed by Saudi political and religious leaders, and are forbidden from openly teaching, learning, or practicing their own understanding of Islam. Saudi Arabia’s conservative religious powers fully support these actions, and the country’s ruling family has either been unable or unwilling to confront them on this issue.

In the hundred years since Shargiyya became part of Saudi Arabia, frustration over continuing mistreatment has occasionally erupted into violence. Simmering resentment has led to numerous minor altercations. The most serious uprising took place in 1979, when thousands of Shi’a from Shargiyya challenged the regime by publically celebrating Ashura, an important Shi’a holiday whose practice had been banned by the Saudi government. Protesters were inspired by the political ideology of the Iranian Revolution, which was unfolding nearby, while also finding inspiration in the apocalyptic and revolutionary ideas of a fanatical Sunni group that violently occupied Mecca’s Masjid al-Haram that same year. Toby Jones, a regional expert from Rutgers University, reports that the Saudi National Guard, perhaps unnerved by the combination of threats from west and east, responded to the Shargiyya protests with deadly force, relying on helicopter gun ships and firing indiscriminately on public gatherings. An unknown number of protesters were killed, and hundreds were driven into exile.

Given this history, it is unsurprising that the Arab Spring has reverberated most deeply in this part of the Arabian Peninsula. Unlike the 1979 demonstrations, however, this recent spate of protest activity does not threaten, or aim to threaten, the integrity or security of the Saudi state. Despite predictions about the impending collapse of the monarchy, Saudi policies have effectively limited the scope and impact of the protests. Nevertheless, these demonstrations should not be viewed as irrelevant, but rather as part of a larger non-sectarian trend in favor of social and political reform in the Kingdom.

The Arab Spring in the Eastern Province

The start of the Arab Spring found a new generation of young Shargiyya Shi’as more impatient than their elders and determined to have the government address their grievances. The first demonstrations in the eastern city of Qatif in early 2011 were motivated partially by sectarian sympathy with protesters in Bahrain and more by long-standing local complaints. Unidentified activists used Facebook and Twitter to call for a nation-wide “Day of Rage” on March 11, 2011 in solidarity with the Bahraini people. Organizers, however, presumably hoped the protests would spread beyond Shargiyya into the more populous Sunni-majority cities of Jeddah and Riyadh. While the police and military deployed across the country, the enormous protests expected by some did not materialize, with dissent and demonstrations largely localized in the Shi’ite East.

In the year since Saudi’s “Day of Rage, the Shi’a have taken to the streets again and again, despite the absence of protests and popular reform movements in the rest of the country. Among other things, protesters have demanded the release of detainees and the institution of reforms to reverse decades of systemic religious discrimination. Often times, Saudi security forces have responded to the protests with a disproportionate use of force, which they refer to, in telling parallel with the Syrian regime, as an “iron fist”. In recent months, at least seven young men have been shot and killed in Qatif in clashes with police and military. Their funerals quickly transformed into mass demonstrations, with some reportedly drawing as many as 100,000 protestors.

Unite, Divide and Conquer

Thus far, Saudi Arabia has shown more interest in silencing dissenting voices than in contemplating real reform. Over the years, the Saudi government has developed a number of different approaches to prevent and limit tensions with its Shi’a population. In addition to generous financial and social programs recently instituted by the Saudi government, these strategies have been responsible for limiting the scope and power of the Eastern region’s ongoing protests.

First, by encouraging debates about reform, Saudi Arabia has made visible, though superficial, efforts to replace historical regional loyalties with a strong national identity. Over the past decade, the Saudi government has hosted numerous National Dialogues bringing together people from across the country to address national concerns. Though accomplishing little of any substance, these conferences have helped strengthening Saudi national identity. In the spirit of entrenching these nationalist feelings, in 2005, Saudi Arabia recognized its first National Day, despite concerns from conservatives who felt any holiday (other than the two Islamic Eids) constituted forbidden religious innovation.

Shi’a leaders in Shargiyya have embraced this trend towards Saudi nationalism. Madawi al-Rasheed, a Saudi-born social anthropologist, has identified a shift in Shi’a attitudes in the 1990s away from the violent resistance of the 1980s and toward support for reforming the system from within. In 1993, Shi’a leaders, exiled as a result of the 1979 uprising, quietly reached a deal with Saudi King Fahd. In return for a general amnesty and promises of reform, Saudi’s Shi’a leadership agreed to abandon their revolutionary tactics, relinquish foreign alliances, and pursue change from within the Saudi political system.

In the last two decades, this approach has borne some fruit. The older Shi’a generations have largely renounced violence. In turn, for the last ten years, the Saudi government has permitted some parts of Shargiyya, notably Qatif, to celebrate Shi’a religious rituals publically, with very little government interference. In 2003 and 2004, Shi’a leaders petitioned King Abdullah for greater rights, while emphasizing their desire to contribute to and remain a part of Saudi society.

By and large, these sentiments of national unity have survived the 2011-2012 protests. Despite purported sympathy for their Shi’a brethren in neighboring Bahrain, the Saudi Shi’a do not appear to have participated in that country’s ongoing turmoil. Likewise, despite hints from the Saudis that Iran has been responsible for the unrest in Shargiyya, a U.S. diplomatic cable on the political loyalties of the country’s Shi’a population suggests that Iranian efforts to enlist support against the Saudi government have proven largely unsuccessful. In short, all signs suggest that Saudi Arabia’s Shi’a are looking for greater inclusion, not separation.

Simultaneous to but in tension with their efforts to create a national consciousness, the Saudi monarchy has encouraged and manipulated regional and sectarian tensions to separate and marginalize opposition forces. Thanks to government efforts, divisions between Sunni and Shi’a have been widening for decades, such that many Sunnis in the western and central parts of the country know very little about the Shi’a beyond defamatory rumor and innuendo. Many Shi’a are afraid of openly acknowledging their religion for fear of social stigma or professional discrimination. This cultural and religious divide makes it unlikely that the protesting Shi’a in Shargiyya will join forces with reform-minded Sunnis in the rest of the country.

In a country dominated by conservative Sunni Islam, the threat of an eastern Shi’i uprising has been used to discourage protests in the rest of the country. State-sponsored innuendos blaming Shi’a unrest on Iran and other international actors have further marginalized the group. Given the country’s fragmented nature, this divide-and-conquer approach has been easy to implement, and has, in fact, generally been the Saudi monarchy’s favored method of governing. The Saudi government has used similar tactics to divide and sideline non-Shi’a reformers over the past two years, and has long used the conservative religious establishment as a foil for reformist agendas, and vice versa.

Finally, Saudi Arabia has responded quickly and forcefully, even brutally at times, to quash unrest in Shargiyya and to prevent its spread to the rest of the country. As mentioned earlier, this response has included deploying military and police forces to Shargiyya, which have used deadly force to confront protesters on more than one occasion since 2011. The government has also employed an efficient censorship system to prevent inflammatory material about events in the east from reaching the rest of the country. For example, Revolution2East, a YouTube channel showing videos of protests in Shargiyya, is inaccessible from within Saudi Arabia. Likewise, the provocative Lebanese English newspaper al-Akhbar, which has published articles on the Qatif protests with titles such as “Saudi Regime Continues to Intimidate Intellectuals” and “Saudi Arabia: Renewing Repression Under the Mantra of Security,” is also unavailable online. Gulf news channels like al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya do not report on the protests. Mainstream domestic newspapers feature only puff pieces about the Eastern Province. For example, the Arabic daily, Al-Riyadh, reported a visit to the region by the “Prince of Hearts”, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Defense, without once mentioning Shi’a unrest. Similarly, the English daily, the Arab News, profiled “The Eastern Province, Land of Opportunities” while conveniently ignoring the region’s substantial Shi’a population.  Even those residing in the eastern region must often look to Iranian or Lebanese television for updates on local news.

Conclusion: Putting Current Trouble into Perspective

As in the domestic Saudi media, the international press in the Western and Arab worlds have largely ignored the ongoing protests in Qatif and the Eastern Province at large. For some, this represents a systematic media bias in favor of Saudi stability, while others predict, based on this limited information, that the monarchy faces impending destruction.

To dismiss these protests or tie them in with the rest of the Arab Spring is to see only part of the truth. Certainly, as in 1979, the international winds of change, particularly in Bahrain, have influenced the timing of these protests. However, as early as 2006, U.S. Diplomats warned of tensions in the Eastern Province caused by a new generation of Shi’a more impatient than the older leadership and suffering from endemic unemployment. For years, small-scale protests occurred as a result of this youthful dissatisfaction, and while the scale and continuity of the current demonstrations are somewhat larger than before, they do not compare in size or violence to the 1979 rebellion.

To equate these protests with the other uprisings of the Arab Spring is also to suggest the presence of a “revolutionary” intent, and to assume that success means removing the shackles of autocracy. In fact, however, these protests were never intended to overthrow the Saudi monarchy. While the younger generation is indeed eager for change, they are more interested in reform than revolution. Unlike the 1979 uprising, demonstrations have focused less on sectarian concerns and more on encouraging the Saudi government to resolve grievances, institute reforms, and resolve historic (and ongoing) mistreatment. This generation of Shi’a strongly identify as Saudi, have as of yet very little attachment to international Shi’ite movements, and hope, like their reform-minded Sunni counterparts in Jeddah and Riyadh, that the government will see that reform is to its advantage.

Unfortunately, thus far, Saudi Arabia has successfully pacified and subdued its Shi’a minority without making concessions that would anger the anti-Shi’a religious conservatives who hold enormous sway in the country. Until the protests gain a broader, less sectarian base, there is little hope that the Shi’a can, on their own, pressure the government to institute changes it does not desire. Although the process may be long, growing social pressure will, in time, force the Saudi government to enact meaningful reforms of some kind. When that time comes, it will be up to the country’s Sunni reformers and the international community to ensure that the Shi’a are not left behind.


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