Shia protest in Saudi Arabia. (Courtesy Reuters)
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