Of all the changes brought on by the Arab Spring, it is the ongoing unrest in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province – home to a large Shiite minority, and holding 90% of the country’s oil reserves – that could prove to be the most important in the long run.
When the Prophet Muhammad died in 632, tensions over who should lead the Islamic community – by that time covering almost the entirety of the Arabian Peninsula – emerged and persisted. On the one hand were those who favoured a succession that promoted the most qualified individual on the basis of wisdom, good conduct, devoutness and competence. This group came to be known as the Sunnis. The Shiites, for their part, believed that authority could only be exercised by members of the Prophet’s family. Unlike the Sunnis, they also saw the blood relatives of Muhammad as divinely inspired and infallible.
Today, most of the world’s Muslims are Sunni (around 85%) but Shiites are the majority in Iran, Iraq and Bahrain; and sizable populations live in Lebanon, Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE, Yemen and, perhaps most significantly, Saudi Arabia.
Estimated to number between 1.5- and 2-million people, the Shiites in Saudi Arabia make up 10% of the national population, and have experienced widespread discrimination since the founding of the Saudi Kingdom in 1932. As far as the religious realm is concerned, this has included bans on practicing their faith in public, restrictions on the building of mosques, and attacks on centres of learning and other gathering places.
At the political level, Shiites have been prevented from serving as cabinet ministers, and faced exclusion from the armed forces and police while the Eastern Province has been ruled over by an administration dominated by Sunni Muslims (who form the 90% majority in Saudi Arabia). Socially, they are viewed as heretics by much of the population, an attitude that has been encouraged by the ultraconservative clerics belonging to the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam that dominates in Saudi Arabia.
Inspired by the Arab Spring, Saudi Shiite demonstrators have become increasingly vocal in demanding an end to their marginalized position. Sporadic protests that began peacefully in February 2011 have now turned violent, most recently in early August in the eastern city of Qatif after demonstrators clashed with police.
Although only around a dozen have been killed – relatively low by the standards of the violence that took place in Egypt and Libya, not to mention the ongoing massacres in Syria – the conflict could escalate, posing serious challenges for the Saudi authorities and the world economy.
Saudi Arabia currently produces more than 9 million barrels of oil per day (about 12% of global output). Even a minor disruption in this supply would send oil prices soaring to levels that would make any chance of a global economic recovery very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.
As with other manifestations of Sunni-Shiite tension in the Middle East, none of this has much to do with genuine religious differences. Instead, the divide is rooted in more subtle, political concerns.
The Shiites’ presence challenges the Wahhabi foundations of the theocratic state that has served as a binding identity, linking Saudi leaders with the broader population. As such, giving in to Shiite demands threatens to undue an important source of political order.
Even more important is the oil factor. As the world’s largest oil exporter, the Saudi state has been able to bribe its people with a variety of benefits in exchange for their obedience. The reaction to the Arab Spring is only one example of the sort of policies that has helped quell any potential uprising over the years. Following the ouster of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt, Saudi leaders announced a $130-billion spending package that would be used to raise the salaries of government employees – most employed Saudis work in the public sector – and build 500,000 homes for the poor.
Calls for an end to Shiite discrimination, at least from the perspective of Saudi leaders, come off as disguised attempts to capture control over the Eastern Province, its oil, and the system of domination it has made possible. This view persists despite the fact that the recent protests have not emphasized a desire for autonomy (although some Shiite activists have proposed reforms in the past, such as a constitution and legislative assembly for the Eastern Province, which hint at precisely this outcome).
Unsurprisingly, the Saudi authorities have not acted to change the status quo and continue to invest billions in military equipment – from fighter jets to tanks – that could be used to suppress a rebellion. But ignoring Shiite grievances is bound to make the situation in the Eastern Province even more unstable, as the examples of Egypt, Libya and Syria all make clear.
Though the Shiite opposition is weak, it also has a potentially devastating trump card: access to vital oil pipeline networks that could easily be attacked if their plight remains unchanged. If and when that happens, there will be more at stake than a rise in the oil price.
Peter Fragiskatos holds a PhD in International Relations from Cambridge University, and teaches at Western University in London, Canada.