The events that erupted this week in the Saudi Arabian province of Qatif have once again revealed a political and social minefield. If exploded, this minefield could lead to dramatic shifts in the kingdom whose rulers are still resisting reform.
Last Sunday [July 8], the situation in Qatif suddenly deteriorated. The security forces shot and arrested senior Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr.
Activists published photos on the Internet of a man with a white beard, covered with a white blood-stained sheet, saying that it was Sheikh Nimr in his car.
The arrest of the sheikh was met with popular anger. Thousands of young people from the eastern region took to the streets in protest against what happened, and two of the protesters, Muhammad Al-Felfel and Akbar Al-Shakhuri, were killed.
Activists say that the two men were shot dead by police snipers from building rooftops, a charge denied by the interior ministry. For their part, the ministry said that the shooting came from "anonymous" sources.
Although prominent figures in Qatif intervened to calm the street and have thus far managed to contain the popular rage, which was obvious during the funeral of the two young men, this week's events have renewed fears that the situation could spin out of control, amid discussions about a true crisis that has been smoldering for decades.
The arrest of Sheikh Nimr
The direct causes of the recent events are apparently the events of June 16, 2012, when men from Qatif organized celebratory marches, set off fireworks, burned pictures of the late heir apparent and called for the fall of King Abdullah al-Saud as soon as they received the news of the death of Saudi crown prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz.
A few days later, Sheikh Nimr defended the young men of Qatif, saying "How can we not rejoice? How can we not rejoice when the one who killed our children is now dead? How can we not rejoice when the one who imprisoned our children has died?" He added, "This country is eternally governed by the sons of Abdul Aziz. This was Nayef's statement. Let him govern it from his grave.”
But the brother of Sheikh Nimr, Saudi dissident Mohammed Baqir al-Nimr, told As-Safir that this is not only about an individual reaction, or the behavior of some people who celebrated the death of Nayef. Baqir al-Nimr indicated that "the statement made by the Ministry of Interior says that images of Prince Nayef have been burnt. This may have happened, but there are serious issues that are being ignored; the security forces are blackmailing prominent figures in Qatif at checkpoints. Moreover, the media is provoking segments of society, and the Shiites in particular.”
In an interview with As-Safir, Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi said that the arrest of Sheikh al-Nimr had been carried out because he claimed secession, adding that the Saudi authorities should have arrested him a long time ago. Khashoggi explained that Sheikh al-Nimr "had the courage to call for the secession of the eastern region, and this is tantamount to a crime ... the man exceeded all limits, and the government gave him many chances through mediators to back down, but he did not. This is a threat to the unity of the kingdom, and Saudis would never want their kingdom to be threatened.”
Mohammed Baqir al-Nimr, however, denies that his brother had called for the secession of the eastern region, explaining that "if you look back to the recording, you will find that Sheikh Nimr has literally said that if our legitimate demands are not responded to, and if we are not given our rights, then let them leave us alone." Baqir al-Nimr asked, "when there is no other way, what are sheikhs, workers, farmers or employees supposed to do?”
According to him, "No one in the eastern region has a real secession plan at the moment, but if such discussions are taking place, then this is a different story."
Baqir al-Nimr stressed that "the people of Qatif are making serious efforts to promote national integration," a claim that he said was bolstered by the many petitions and programs produced from the region in conjunction with political and social forces.
According to Khashoggi, injustice does not justify the demand for secession, and "all Saudis have the right to demand what they want, and we are free to ask the state for whatever it is that we want, but our demands are made in the framework of the state. Those who feel that they are treated unfairly should never call for division, and this principle is widespread in all countries.”
The question remains: Why is the situation deteriorating, as a period of relative calm had been prevailing in the eastern region after the series of protests that resulted from the interaction between the region’s people and the Arab Spring?
According to Baqir al-Nimr, there are two aspects to the story. The first is that “fundamentalist Salafist groups are placing pressure on the interior ministry and accusing it of being lenient with Shiite detainees, but this is far from being true." The second is that this is "a political message that the authorities may have wanted to send to us.”
Baqir al-Nimr went on: "What happened came as a surprise to us ... Following the appointment of Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz as the Minister of Interior, five or six detainees were released after being detained for expressing their opinions. We expected that this détente would continue, even at a slow pace, so that Prince Ahmed could begin a new era. But we were surprised by this security behavior [that followed], which we never experienced before, even under Prince Nayef.”
Baqir al-Nimr added that what happened was "a tough message for the people of Qatif and Al-Ahsa. Emir Ahmed began his reign with blood, which is not a successful beginning.”
On the other hand, Khashoggi reduced the importance of the timing, denying that Nimr’s arrest came in response to some kind of pressure. Moreover, he pointed out that "the government has taken into account specific circumstances, and some even say that the arrest should have been made a long time ago.”
He added that “the man was released with the hope that he will renege on these statements.” According to Khashoggi, Nimr’s arrest was delayed because the “state had to deal with the issue of minorities, which requires some level of caution and diligence.”
The root of the problem and prospects for a solution
Apart from the immediate events associated with the arrest of Sheikh Nimr, the popular movement in the eastern region of Saudi Arabia is a natural result of a problem that has remained intractable for decades. Some call it the “Shiite issue in Saudi Arabia.”
The Shiite population amounts to roughly two million people, which represents between 10–15% of the total population in Saudi Arabia. Most of them reside in the Eastern Province (in the regions of Hasa and Qatif), which has the largest oil fields and refineries. Shiite communities are also present in Mecca and Medina, in addition to the Ismaili gathering of about a hundred thousand in the region of Najran on the Saudi-Yemeni border.
In fact, Shiites in Saudi Arabia have been targeted by sectarian incitement ever since the kingdom was founded in 1932. Perhaps, to a certain extent, the protests that erupted in the eastern region during the late 1970s reflect the depth of the problem, which many within the kingdom tend to ignore. While King Abdullah sought to improve relations among the different sects in Saudi society when he was crown prince during the reign of King Fahd, the problem of the Shiite minority in Saudi Arabia remains poorly addressed.
Although the most prominent reason behind the popular movement in the eastern region is the policy of marginalization and discrimination that the government has been applying on Shiite minorities, most people in the region believe it is an injustice to describe their movements as “sectarian.”
“The movement in the eastern region calls for lifting sectarian discrimination against the eastern region’s Shiites. This is the legitimate right and national demand of all the faithful,” said Baqir al-Nimr. He also stressed that “the people of the eastern region are active within the framework of the national movement. Their demands are not isolated from the rest of the demands for reform.”
Khashoggi, on the other hand, stressed that “it would be a mistake to talk about a historical problem in Qatif. The people of the eastern region are Saudi like other Saudis and therefore we should not be describing what is happening there as crisis.”
Khashoggi believes that the movements in the eastern region operate on different levels: “There are some groups that are in harmony with foreign parties, Iran in particular. Those are the marginalized minority, even within the Shiite community. There are also national Shiite forces that are interacting with others for reform in Saudi Arabia. These groups have converged ideas as they are aware of the importance of partnership to transform Saudi Arabia into a better country.”
Baqir al-Nimr, however, refused to hint about the Iranian role in the Shiite movement, as he considers the eastern region to be “too small to be part of the regional and international [political game].” He stressed that “this movement existed before the relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia became strained and before the eruption of the Islamic revolution [in Iran].” Nimr said that evoking the external factor is an attempt by the regime to cover up its mistakes. He reminded that the people of Qatif and al-Ahsa “are Arab citizens. One should never question their patriotism.”
Perhaps there are different views on how to categorize and put forth solutions for the problem in the eastern region. In this context, Khashoggi believes that “the first step in solving the problem would be for Qatif officials to contact Saudi authorities. Both parties must then seek to promote the culture of moderation.” He added that “there is no need to include those few outlaws within the government’s initiative, as it would be like the government including al-Qaeda in its initiatives.”
For his part, Baqir al-Nimr believes that the solution to the Qatif problem lies in “a courageous political decision,” stressing the need to “give up security measures,” which was why the situation began in the first place. “We say to the officials: you have been applying security measures for 70 years now, and yet you have failed to solve the problem. Why don’t you opt for political measures instead?” He explained that “previously, King Fahd adopted political measures when he launched an initiative and talked with the opposition abroad. How can the Saudi government demand other systems, such as the Syrian regime, to abandon the security solution and opt for a political one when it is unable to apply this strategy at home?”
On the other hand, Khashoggi refuses to talk about a “security-solution” policy adopted by the government in its approach to the eastern-region issue. According to him, “the security forces are practically responding to anyone violating the rules regardless of whether they are in Qatif or anywhere else. The violators are installing checkpoints and throwing Molotov cocktails, and this does not mean in any way that the state is resorting to security solutions.”
Although many say that the Arab uprisings appear to have had no effect on the kingdom, some believe that Saudi Arabia will not remain unscathed by the Arab Spring. This seems quite accurate, especially as the Saudi social movement does not go beyond the axioms of political reforms, and the most prominent demands lie in calling for a constitutional monarchy. However, invoking historical experiences both in Saudi Arabia (the fall of the first and second states) or in other regions of the world indicates that political mines, such as the popular movement in the eastern region, could snowball. This may lead to a dramatic turn of events that could spiral of control.