There are widely varying accounts of the events surrounding the deaths of these two men as well as what kind of men they were and why they were targeted. One in particular, Mursi al-Rebah was on the government’s most wanted list for alleged involvement in armed clashes with the authorities as well as other serious criminal activities. However, many in his Shiite-majority town of Awamiya saw him as a defender of their rights, and they now consider him a “martyr.” A video clip posted on YouTube of a procession following his death appears to include thousands of mourners who could be heard chanting rare anti-government slogans as well as calling for “retribution for those who fired the bullets.” While Shiite protests have occurred intermittently over the past year and a half, most have not been nearly as politically charged as this one. The sense of anger at the perceived injustice is palpable.
In 2010, I attended a talk by influential Saudi Shiite cleric Hassan al-Saffar in Virginia. And while he acknowledged that some problems remained, he called on Shiite Saudis to be patient and to adopt a moderate tone in their demands from the government, to ease the restrictions on their religious observations and to allow more freedom in the building of Shiite institutions including mosques. His conciliatory tone and common-sense approach was clearly aimed at bridging divides and transcending past hostilities. It is this exact approach that other moderate and influential Shiite leaders must take to defuse the increasing tension which will no doubt be stoked by younger firebrands who — unlike Saffar and others — do not appreciate the improvements in the status of Saudi Shiites since the early 1980s, when Ayatollah Khomeini threatened to export his revolution to the rest of the region, thereby creating a sense of mutual distrust between Sunnis and Shiites across the entire Middle East.
The latest bout of unrest is also a perfect opportunity for the newly appointed governor of the Eastern Province, Saud bin Nayef, to put his stamp on the governorship by spearheading the reconciliation. He should meet with notables from the region to put this unfortunate incident in perspective and to prevent it from becoming fodder for those who have already fanned the flames of sectarianism. This effort should include reprimanding Sunni clerics who employ sectarian rhetoric or question the loyalty of Saudi Shiites.
However, this latest incident, and how the Saudi authorities and Shiite leaders handle it, could be a harbinger of things to come.
Fahad Nazer is a political analyst at JTG Inc. in Vienna, Virginia, and former political analyst at the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Washington, DC. His writing has appeared in the International Herald Tribune, Yaleglobal Online, The Daily Star (Lebanon), The Khaleej Times, The Pakistan Observer and Outlook India, among others. His writing was also included in The Kingdom: Saudi Arabia and the Challenge of the 21st Century. On Twitter: @fanazer