Saudi Arabia may have at first appeared untouched by the 2011 Arab uprisings, but the apparent calm belies a simmering crisis. Shia and Sunni sectarian tensions are arguably at the highest level since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and a harsh government crackdown is mobilizing radical elements in the Shia community and undercutting its pragmatists. The United States faces no shortage of crises in the region, but it would do well to not let this one slip too far off the radar. Aside from obvious concerns about human rights and reform, the continued unrest in the predominantly Shia Eastern Province of the Sunni-led kingdom presents a potential strategic threat to U.S. interests. Iran has historically sought to aid beleaguered Shia communities in its neighborhood, and, as evidenced by the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing and, more recently, the cyberattack on Saudi Aramco in August of this year, it has the capability and intent to hit Saudi Arabia. Currently, there is little evidence of Iranian material support of Shia groups in the Eastern Province, but continued unrest could change that. The mounting frustrations of Saudi youth could translate into a ready pool of recruits, or prompt the reincarnation of the Saudi Hezbollah. 

Comprising ten to 15 percent of the kingdom's population, Saudi Shia have long faced religious discrimination, political marginalization, and economic hardship. Although the Eastern Province contains the majority of Saudi oil reserves, the Shia population there has yet to benefit economically, especially when compared with Sunnis living in the central Najd region, the historic seat of Saudi power. It is therefore unsurprising that the 2011 revolts in Tunis and Cairo reverberated strongly in the east. 

Riding on the wave of change in the region, moderate Shia activists rekindled long-dormant relationships with Sunni reformists in the Najd and Hijaz provinces and planned countrywide protests for March 11, 2011. But the so-called Day of Rage fell apart, undermined by mutual distrust among Sunnis and Shia. As the day approached, Web sites and Facebook pages appeared proclaiming uniquely Shia demands and calls for reform. A number of Web-based Sunni activists lambasted the Shia organizers for pursuing a narrowly sectarian agenda that diluted the overall movement and played into the hands of the regime. This development later proved a watershed in the fracturing of the opposition and, arguably, the demise of the Saudi Spring. 

On March 9 and 10, approximately 600 to 800 Shia protesters demonstrated in the eastern, Shia-dominated city of Qatif denouncing the regime's recent arrest of the popular Shia cleric Tawfiq al-Amer and other activists. The police responded with percussion grenades and rubber bullets, provoking further anger and demonstrations across the east. The moderate Shia Web site Rasid tried to distance itself from these Shia-specific, violent protests that overshadowed cross-sect efforts. But by the end of March, hope of a Sunni-Shia Saudi Spring had been extinguished by sectarianism. 

In an attempt at reconciliation, the governor of the Eastern Province, Prince Mohammad bin Fahd, and his deputy met with a delegation of young people and clerics in late March 2011 and reportedly promised to redress Shia grievances. At the same time, however, the regime began a concerted crackdown, maintaining a near constant presence of security forces, helicopters, and armored vehicles on the streets of Qatif. On November 2, 2011, the spokesman for the Saudi Interior Ministry announced that Eastern Province police would set up a Facebook presence and assign a special team to monitor social media in the region. The alleged purpose of the Facebook page was to encourage tips and information from anonymous informants regarding outlawed activity in the region. Nearly simultaneously, the regime blocked a number of Eastern Province Web sites.

Aside from the deleterious effects on living conditions, the security and media crackdowns have had far-reaching consequences for the Shia political movement. They have hastened the declining credibility of the pragmatic, pro-dialogue approach of the Islahiyyin ("reformists"), a moderate Shia opposition movement led by Sheikh Hassan al-Saffar. These pragmatic Shia interlocutors, with whom the Saudi regime has traditionally dealt, are being replaced by something entirely new and more worrisome. Frustrated with the moderates' failure to deliver tangible results, younger Shia activists have adopted more violent, militant tactics. In a 2012 sermon, Saffar acknowledged this rage with surprising candor, warning that, "although previous generations tolerated and adapted to problems, the current generation is different." 

Responding to this pressure, Islahiyyin leaders have made statements that are increasingly strident and critical of the regime. A longtime supporter of King Abdullah's ten-year "national dialogue" project, which encourages communication among religious sects, Saffar has never condoned or incited violence. But younger activists have forced him into a more rigid position. For example, in one Friday prayer sermon last year, he directly attacked the Interior Ministry for its heavy-handed response to Shia rioting, arguing that the regime's statements facilitated an atmosphere of sectarianism. In February 2012, he delivered a sermon obliquely attacking the hypocrisy of the royal al-Saud family in criticizing the bloodletting in Syria while causing civilian deaths in the Eastern Province. These statements, in turn, provoked an even sharper escalation of anti-Shia rhetoric in the press from Sunni and pro-regime voices. 

The Saudi regime has long isolated radical Shia groups while at the same time painting the broader Shia movement as Iranian-backed, thus separating Shia from like-minded, pro-reform Sunnis. An October 2011 pro-regime editorial in al-Hayat, the Saudi daily newspaper, exemplifies this strategy. The piece called for the kingdom's authorities to crush allegedly Iranian-backed Shia protests in the Eastern Province, arguing that "it is time to admit that there are fighting groups in al-Qatif that have been trained in Iran, Syria, and Lebanon, and to start liquidating and purging them from the country." Since the article appeared last year, more than 16 protesters have been killed.

Far from isolating the radical Shia current, the security crackdown has only emboldened and popularized it. Perhaps the most significant turning point was the arrest of the popular Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr this past summer -- an event that shook the region to its core, prompting a stream of violent clashes that has yet to abate. Hailing from a clerical family with a long pedigree of anti-Saud activity, Nimr has been steadily gaining popularity since 2008. His rhetoric is unapologetically pan-Shia; he has frequently spoken of a Shia ummah (nation) and has hinted that he would advocate a separate Shia state if reforms are not forthcoming. Above all, however, he advocates for dignity and justice. These themes resonated strongly among the youth of his hometown, Awamiya, an impoverished Shia village that suffers from endemic unemployment and is now a hotbed of antigovernment sentiment. 

In the summer of 2012, Nimr's fiery sermons crossed an unofficial red line in the eyes of the Saudi regime. On June 27, he delivered a rousing tirade against the royal family, rejoicing in the recent death of the much-feared interior minister, Prince Nayef, and imploring God to take the lives of the "entire al-Saud, Khalifa, and Assad dynasties." On July 8, Saudi security forces attempted to arrest him; a car chase and firefight ensued. Nimr was shot, wounded in the thigh, arrested, and taken into custody. Compelled to start his tenure with a firm hand, the then-newly appointed interior minister, Prince Ahmed bin Abdul al-Aziz, promptly issued a scathing statement deriding Nimr as mentally ill.

After this incident, Shia activists on Facebook called for countrywide protests, while moderate leaders encouraged calm in sermons and statements. 40 Shia clerics across the ideological spectrum -- from the moderate Shiraziyyin to the pro-Iranian Khat al-Imam -- implored Shia youth to remain steadfast and cease all violence to avoid playing into the hands of the regime. But the Shia clergy has appeared increasingly anemic and out of touch; social media -- not the sermon -- has become the ascendant channel of political communication in the Shia east. 

On July 12, 2012, the Saudi oppositionist Web site al-Jazira al-Arabiya posted a statement from a hitherto unknown opposition group called the Youth of al-Qatif Revolution, which threatened to "assault police stations and blow up oil wells" if Nimr were not released. Hundreds of Shia protesters took to the streets, and clashes with security forces in Awamiya and Qatif have become an almost nightly occurrence. 

Finally, the anti-Shia crackdown has not even placated the country's Sunnis. The summer and fall of 2012 saw continuous anti-regime Sunni protests in Qassim, a longtime stronghold of conservative Salafism. This simultaneous unrest in the center and east -- and what it reveals about the breadth of opposition in the country -- was not lost on Saudi Arabian activists on social media. As one popular Twitter user noted: "Qassim & Qatif both having protest in such short time apart ought to be making (the Saudi government) very nervous." Another warned: "The 2 most opposite cities in Saudi, Qassim and Qatif are both protesting. If ppl A to Z want change, current system won't stand much longer."

The protests may not be an imminent threat to the Saudi government, but their persistence and increasing violence show that the status quo cannot be taken for granted. By ignoring long-standing grievances, playing the sectarian card, and unequivocally treating the opposition as Iranian-backed radicals, the regime is aggravating the very situation that it would like to defuse. 

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  • FREDERIC WEHREY is a Senior Associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is the author of Sectarian Politics in the Gulf: From the Iraq War to the Arab Uprisings, to be published by Columbia University Press.
  • More By Frederic Wehrey