Saudi Arabia and the Protests in the Arab World

A Colossus with Feet of Clay

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia may have promised to carry out some tentative reform measures in his country as a consequence of the popular uprisings in the Arab world, but if the government in Riyadh does not change its policies, particularly with regard to the Shiites, the Kingdom may well be headed for trouble. By Guido Steinberg

King Abdullah (photo: AP)
The civil unrest and calls for demonstrations in Saudi Arabia are causing increasing nervousness in the royal palace, but King Abdullah is still refusing to introduce any truly profound democratic reforms in his country

​​ When the ageing King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia returned to his country in February 2011 following a four-month absence due to illness, it was to lavish his subjects with a cornucopia of benefits.

He announced a huge benefit programme amounting to around 36 billion dollars. Among other things, he promised public service employees a salary increase of 15 per cent and direct payments were to be made to students, those wishing to marry and debtors.

At the same time, however, the Saud family regime also tightened its control with more repressive measures. Demonstrations planned for March 11, inspired by events in Cairo and Tunis, were banned and opposition activists arrested and put under pressure to abandon the protests.

The Shiite opposition was hardest hit. Popular cleric and activist Tawfiq al-Amer was arrested at the end of February after he called for the introduction of a constitutional monarchy and an end to discrimination against members of his confession. Shiites in the east of the country reacted by staging protests to call for his release. Further arrests were the consequence.

Increasing nervousness of political leadership

These events show just how nervous the Saudi leadership has become following the revolutions in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia and where they see the greatest threat to stability domestically – the eastern side of the country is home to around two million Shiites who make up approximately half of the population of the country's oil-rich Eastern Province.

Shiite protesters in Al-Qatif (photo: AP)
A deeply divided country: A Shiite demonstration for democratic rights and against exclusion on religious grounds, in Saudi's Eastern Province city of Al-Qatif

​​ Such carrot-and-stick policies may prove effective in the short term. But what these events make abundantly clear once more is that Saudi Arabia is a deeply divided country whose leaders have begun too late and too indecisively to work on trying to create a feeling of national identity. It is likely that the Shiites in particular will now try to use every opportunity to cast off the yoke of the Saudi state. Events in North Africa have shown that the opportunity to do so could come sooner than expected.

A history of tension

Saudi Arabia is still a young state. It was conquered by its founder King Abdulaziz (known as Ibn Saud) during the first three decades of the last century. From his power base in the central Arabian region of Najd with its capital of Riyadh, his troops set out in 1913 to conquer the predominantly Shiite occupied Eastern Province, and in 1924/25 the kingdom of Hijaz with its holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

While it initially seemed as if the western part of the country with its wealthy port city of Jeddah and revenues from the annual pilgrimmage would prove to be the most important conquest, since 1945 it has been the Eastern Province of the young kingdom that has been supplying the significantly higher income through oil exports. Almost all of the country's major oil fields are located there.

The Shiites benefitted very little from the country's sudden wealth. They were to suffer, in fact, by being maligned as infidels by the religious ideology of the conquerers from the deserts of central Arabia. These conquerers were adherents of the Wahhabiya, a purist Sunni reform movement which seeks to distinguish itself outwardly from non-Wahhabi Muslims.

Opposition protests in Bahrain (photo: AP)
Supporting the royal house of Bahrain: Abdullah sent Saudi troops into Bahrain on March 14 to help the country's king deal with increasingly vehement opposition protests

​​ For the Wahhabis, ordinary Muslims are not true believers. That honour goes only to those who meticulously follow Wahhabi rules of conduct and accept their theological views without reservation. This evidently does not apply to the Shiites for whom the Wahhabis often reserve a greater hate than they do for Jews or Christians. The Shiites, according the oft repeated Wahhabi argument, spuriously claim to be Muslims and are thus guilty of corrupting the religion from within.

The members of the Wahhabi religious establishment were largely successful in imposing their religious and political ideas on the conquered Eastern Province, mainly due to the fact that the country's rulers and its scholars already shared a broad consensus in their evaluation of Shi'ism.

Accordingly, since 1913, the Shiites in Saudi Arabia have often been brutally discriminated against. Between 1913 and 2001, they were not permitted to build any new mosques, for example, while Shiite religious celebrations such as the Ashura festival had for decades to be celebrated in secret. Shiite religious education is also banned in the country's schools.

And then there are the socio-economic disadvantages. In Saudi Arabia's all important civil service Shiites are very much in the minority; top jobs in other areas are more or less closed to them, while the army and security forces are Shiite-free zones.

Since 1979 the situation for Saudi Shiites has deteriorated. Further fuel was added to the already latently simmering conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia over influence in the region by the Islamic Revolution in Iran, which also added a religious dimension.

In November 1979, riots erupted in Saudi's Eastern Provence after Shiites, inspired by the revolution in their neighbouring country, publicly celebrated Ashura, leading to clashes with security forces. From that point on, as far as the Saudi leadership was concerned, the Shiites of the Eastern Province were a potential fifth column for Shiite Iran, as well as a security risk.

Reform and its limitations

After 2001, and again after 2003, the Saudi leadership made some effort at trying to improve the lot of the country's Shiites. The bans on the building of new mosques, for example, and on the celebration of Ashura were partially relaxed. These measures formed part of a more comprehensive set of reforms introduced by the Saudi leadership, apparently in response to American pressure and, after 2003, the threat represented by Al-Qaida.

Shiite protests in Al-Qatif (photo: AP)
The predominantly Shiite cities of Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province have witnessed several small-scale protest actions in the past two weeks, some of them even involving women

​​ The driving force behind these moves was the then Crown Prince, now King, Abdullah, who since the mid-1990s has shown himself – albeit in a very cautious way – to be a force for reform in domestic and religious policies. Perhaps the most important of these measures was the initiation of a “national dialogue”.

This took the form of an occasional series of invitations from the king to various social groups for the purpose of discussing controversial topics such as the position of religious minorities, the role of women and other more general social issues.

The first such meeting, in June of 2003, caused a particular stir by bringing together Wahhabi religious scholars and Shiites. A reduction of religious tensions in Saudi Arabia was most likely what the government was hoping to achieve.

Subsequently, however, the limitations of Abdullah's reform efforts became evident. In his attempt to soften the dividing line between Sunnis and Shiites, Abdullah had broken a taboo. His meetings with Shiite representatives came in for heavy criticism from conservative Wahhabi groups, which in turn caused the Saudi leadership to become more hesitant in their efforts to address the issue of the disadvantaged Shiites.

One step forward, two steps back

It soon became all too clear that Abdullah was not going to risk offending the Wahhabi scholars whose loyalty to the Saudi state has been crucial since the mid-18th century. Although Abdullah has clearly reduced their influence in recent years, they nevertheless remain a part of his central Arabian power base and an important source of the ruling family's religious legitimacy – one they do not intend to do without.

This became particularly evident after 2005/06 when pressure for reform from the US and the threat from Al-Qaida both diminished. Although the new king Abdullah did continue down the reform path, measures were no longer aimed at addressing the Shiite situation.

One reason for this policy was the gradual escalation of the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Riyadh feared that Tehran would use its new-found influence in the region, following the Iraq War of 2003, to stir up Arab Shiites in the Gulf against their governments.

Minister of the Interior Naif (photo: AP)
The new strong man in Saudi Arabia? Minister of the Interior Naif, almost 78 years old, is widely tipped to be the next king. He is seen as an opponent of reform and supporter of the traditional alliance with the Wahhabi scholars

​​ This attitude also informed Riyadh's view of the Iranian nuclear programme, which they saw as a screen for a policy of exporting revolution. Saudi Arabia's Shiites reacted to the ending of the reform efforts by showing their displeasure in no uncertain terms, and unrest in Medina in early 2009 provided clear warning signs.

Although the regime in Riyadh is not in any imminent danger of being toppled by a broad-based popular protest movement, the Saud family's concerns are nevertheless justified. The extent of these concerns was revealed by reports of a telephone conversation between President Obama and King Abdullah at the end of January, where Abdullah complained bitterly to the US president about his country's readiness to turn its back on such an important ally as Egypt's Hosni Mubarak.

Although, due to its oil wealth, Saudi Arabia is at least as important a partner as Egypt, the reaction in Washington left Riyadh wondering whether it could really count on its American allies. The recent movement of Saudi troops into Bahrain shows just how nervous the Saudi governments reacts to the changes in the region.

For an end to discrimination

In Bahrain, too, it is the severely disadvantaged Shiites who are demanding political equality with the Sunni elite and calling for an end to discrimination. Were the Bahraini Al Khalifa family to fall, there would certainly be consequences for the stability of the Saudi state too. For this reason, the Saudi family felt it had no choice but to intervene.

The basic problem, however, is the lack of enthusiasm for reform among the current political elite. Only a cessation of the alliance between the the country's rulers and religious scholars, which has existed since the 18th century, would enable Saudi Arabia to successfully address its social and religious divides. What the Shiites and reformers in the country are facing instead is the prospect of the nearly 88-year-old Abdullah dying soon and being replaced by one of the more conservative members of his family.

In particular, the new strong man and possible next king in Riyadh, the close to 78-year-old interior minister Naif, is seen as an opponent of reform and someone likely to favour a continuation of the traditional alliance with the Wahhabi scholars.

The country's reformers consider him their main enemy among the leading princes, and the ruling family's failure to produce any younger and more reform-minded successor means that conflict is almost inevitable. If Riyadh fails to change its policies, particularly with regard to the Shiites, then there may well be troubled times ahead for the Kingdom.

Guido Steinberg


Translated from the German by Ron Walker

Guido Steinberg is an expert in Islamic Studies. He has been working for the German Institute for International and Security Affairs since autumn 2005 where he specialises in developments in the Arab world and in Islamic terrorism. 2002-2005 he was an advisor on international terrorism to the federal Chancellery in Berlin.

Editor: Lewis Gropp/

Saudi Arabia's Foreign Policy under King Abdullah
Growing Challenges, Limited Room to Manoeuvre
Since King Abdullah ascended the throne five years ago, Saudi Arabia has distanced itself from the United States and pursued a more active regional policy than in the past. According to Middle East expert Guido Steinberg, however, despite this change in policy, the kingdom has not been able to stop Iran becoming the leading power in the region

Saudi Arabia's Shia
An Uprising of the Marginalized
In the eyes of the Saudi political scientist Mai Yamani, the suppression of the Shi'a minority is part of Saudi Arabia's strategy for parrying Iran's claims to regional dominance

Unrest in the Arab World
The Battle for Bahrain
The uprising in Manama differs from the recent mass protests that toppled long-time rulers in North Africa. In his essay, Barak Barfi expresses the opinion that sectarianism and the security forces' complete loyalty to the monarchy seriously diminishes the likelihood of peaceful regime change in Bahrain

Uprisings in the Arab World
The anger of the Tunisians and the Egyptians towards the autocratic regimes in their countries has triggered an unprecedented revolt in several states in the Arab world. Our dossier provides an insight into the factors that led to the unrest and an overview of current developments

Related Topics