Saudi Shi’a Uprising Causes Jitters in the Gulf


6 October 2011

The Saudi authorities are exerting massive efforts to prevent waves of protest, which are storming several Arab countries, from arriving inside the Saudi borders. This is done either by improving the living conditions of the Saudi citizen, or by offering huge financial gifts to neighbouring countries, as it did with Jordan (1.4 billion dollars) to prevent the collapse of the monarchy or the weakening of its bases of legitimacy.

However, it seems that these efforts, despite their importance, have only had a delaying role, because popular protests erupted in the Shi'i town of Al-Awwamiyah (Al-Qatif Governorate) and have continued for the past two days, and led to fierce confrontations with the police, have surprised all, and confirmed that the Saudi barricades in the way of the Arab spring have not been strong or impregnable enough.

Saudi Monarch King Abdallah Bin-Abd-al-Aziz has become aware of the dangers of the waves of protest that started from Tunisia, and so far have toppled two Arab regimes (the regime of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and the regime of Egyptian President Husni Mubarak), and hence he hastened to adopt preventative measures. The first of these measures is a financial economic one represented by allocating 120 billion dollars for increasing the salaries, financing housing projects for the youths, pardoning debts, and awarding financial gifts and unemployment benefits. The second measure is a social political one as he issued a law allowing women to participate in the upcoming municipal elections as a voter and candidate.

These steps have contributed to calming down the Saudi people, or a fundamental part of this people. The statements and petitions calling for political reform and signed by large numbers of activists have stopped, or rather their numbers have decreased. However, the effect of these steps is temporary, because what the Saudis demand is greater than allowing women to participate in municipal semi-elections leading to councils with limited effect because of the presence of regional governors or Amirs, who have the final word.

The Saudis demand a constitutional monarchy, an elected parliament, an independent judiciary, complete accountability of the executive authority with absolute transparency, and a war on corruption.

The Saudi Shi'i citizens in the Eastern Region (Al-Ihsa Province), where there are the largest oil reserves and industry, demand all the above, in parity with the other Saudi citizens, in addition to other special and legitimate demands, such as lifting the discrimination against them in the senior posts of the state, especially in the army, security, diplomatic corps, and ministerial portfolios, perhaps in a way that is compatible with their proportion of the population, which is estimated by some sources to around 10 per cent of the 19 million population.

The Saudi authorities have accused a foreign country of being behind the protests in Al-Qatif Region, in an implicit reference to Iran. The Saudi authorities say about Iran: "It wants to encroach upon the security and stability of the country" by inciting violence and "blatant interference" in the affairs of the Kingdom. The authorities couple this accusation with demanding that the Saudi Shi'is choose between loyalty to their country and loyalty to Iran and its religious authority. The Saudi authorities follow this threat, according to the statement of the Saudi Interior Ministry,by saying that it will strike with an iron fist anyone who thinks of doing so, i.e. becoming loyal to Iran.

The Saudi threat is reminiscent of similar threats pronounced by Arab regimes that witnessed similar protest demonstrations, such as Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya. Such threats that were followed by a bloody security solution did not prevent the collapse of regimes, and the destabilization of others that still are fighting for survival.

What attracts attention is that the protesters in these demonstrations in Al -Qatif have used firearms, according to the Saudi official statement, during their confrontation with the police officers who came to disperse them, and injured 11 policemen.

We do not know the extent of the accuracy of this information; however, if we use as a criterion what happened in Bahrain during the eruption of similar protest demonstrations of Shi'i character, we find that the Bahraini demonstrations were peaceful, and no firearms at all were used in them; on the contrary, the Bahraini security forces were the ones that fired at the protesters, and killed dozens of them during the eviction of Al-Lu'lu'ah Square by force.

The irony is that the spark that triggered the fire of protest in the Shi'i Eastern Region in Saudi Arabia is similar to its counterpart that triggered the fire and activities of the uprising in Syria with slight differences. In Syria, the fathers of children, who wrote anti-regime slogans on the walls of their schools, were arrested and humiliated, and in the Saudi Al-Qatif Region the police arrested two elderly men as hostages to exert pressure on their two sons to surrender to the police.

The Syrian regime's management of the Dar'a crisis has been bad, arrogant, and haughty, and it seems that the Saudi authorities' management of the Shi'i protests' crisis is following the same path. However, we cannot predict the development of the Saudi situation, and whether the Saudi security solutions will succeed in containing the crisis and putting an end to it, or the crisis will expand and drag on for months similar to the situation in Syria.

The Saudi authorities have sent troops to help the Bahraini authorities to suppress the Shi'i protest in Bahrain. It is certain that the Iranian authorities, which are accused of being behind the protests in Saudi Arabia will hesitate a great deal to send troops or even weapons, but they will show the same sympathy they showed to the protesters in Bahrain, and perhaps more so when the situation is related to protesters in Saudi Arabia.

The other small Gulf countries perhaps are living in a state of unprecedented apprehension as they follow up the developments of the protests in Saudi Arabia. This is because the Shi'i minorities, which suffer from similar sectarian discrimination in most of these countries, might move to support their brethren in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in one way or another, which will lead to the growth of the sectarian snowball, this is if it does not turn later on into a ball of fire with the help of Iran.