In the past week, four men have been killed in Shia protests in the Qatif region in Saudi Arabia. This latest outbreak in violence has been dubbed as the most serious in the Kingdom since the start of the Arab Spring.
A population of approximately 2 million, Shias have previously demonstrated against the Saudi authorities only to similarly have those demonstrations quashed. In September, women were granted minimal rights to vote in future municipal elections (but still not to drive) but voting rights for the minority Shia community were ignored. As noted in a September 2011 article in The Economist, while the Shias in Saudi Arabia are the largest in terms of numbers compared to other Gulf countries, they are proportionally smaller among an even larger population of Sunni Arabs within the Kingdom. They are therefore subject to greater systematic discrimination from state and religious institutions.
In response to the killings this week, the Saudi Interior Ministry stated: “a number of security checkpoints and vehicles have since Monday been increasingly coming under gunfire attacks in the Qatif region by assailants motivated by foreign orders.”
The statement is presumably referring to ‘foreign orders’ from Iran. Ever since the US alleged that the Iranians plotted to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington, DC, in October, relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran have been at boiling point. The Saudis are worried about Iran’s role in the Middle East. According to one WikiLeaks revelation, in 2008 Saudi King Abdullah asked the US to “cut off the head of the snake” and attack Iran to stop it from developing nuclear weapons. This worry has only been intensified since the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released its report into Iran’s nuclear programme in November, which noted that elements of its programme indicated possible attempts at weaponisation. The Saudis made it clear earlier this year that they would be compelled to accrue nuclear weapons if the Iranians had them—the consequences of such a stand-off would no doubt be disastrous.
As Iran is run by a Shia clerical establishment, protests by the Shia community in Saudi Arabia are seen by the authorities as Iranian attempts in meddling within the internal affairs of the country. King Abdullah—and many within the Saudi government—views the Iranians as a threat to Saudi power in the Middle East and, along with other Persian Gulf powers, as a potentially destabilising force within the region, a Shia threat against the region’s Sunni hegemonic arrangement. There are genuine fears that the Persians will exploit the events of the Arab Spring and attempt to refashion Shia protests as a Shia revolution in the Middle East. That is why the GCC were apt to deploy their military reserves in Bahrain to quash the uprisings there earlier this year. Saudi Shias, therefore, are seen as fifth columnists.
A friend of mine currently living in the region persnally told me that there is general support for suppressing Shia protests both in Bahrain and in Saudi Arabia among local Gulf Arabs. This is not so much because of the religious differences between the Shias and Sunnis, but because Iran is seen as a threat. According to my friend, Gulf Arabs generally believe and fear that if Iran were able to control the Shia populations, then they could control the whole of the Khaleej. But a minority of Gulf Arabs alternatively believe, and rightly so, that if the Monarchies were to grant their Shia populations greater rights and representation, then the Shias wold have no reason to look towards Iran for any form of support, as ultimately, loyalty will lie with their own government.