Does the unrest in Saudi Arabia mean their government is tottering?

Summary: The Saudi Princes rule one of the nations key to the current geopolitical order. Recent news stories suggest it is tottering, such as the execution of a reformist Shiite cleric. A close look at authoritative sources gives the answer, one that also illuminates other questions about current events.

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Saudi execution of Shia cleric sparks outrage in Middle East
The Guardian, 2 January 2016

The Iranian government and religious leaders across the Middle East have condemned Saudi Arabia’s execution of a prominent Shia cleric {Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr} and warned of repercussions that could bring down the country’s royal family.

Nimr had long been regarded as the most vocal Shia leader in the eastern Saudi province of Qatif, willing to publicly criticise the ruling al-Saud family and call for elections. He was, however, careful to avoid calling for violence, analysts say. That did not prevent the interior ministry from accusing him of being behind attacks on police, alongside a group of other suspects it said were working on behalf of Iran, the kingdom’s main regional rival.

… The execution was described as a “grave mistake” by the Supreme Islamic Shia Council in Lebanon and a “flagrant violation of human rights” by Yemen’s Houthi movement. … Iran’s Shia leadership said the execution of Nimr “would cost Saudi Arabia dearly”.

…Nimr was one of 47 people Saudi Arabian executed for terrorism on Friday. The interior ministry said most of those killed were involved in a series of al-Qaida attacks between 2003 and 2006. … The simultaneous execution of 47 people on security grounds was the biggest such event in Saudi Arabia since the 1980 killing of 63 jihadi rebels who seized Mecca’s Grand Mosque in 1979.

The Mehr News Agency reports strong words by Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Jaber Ansari…

The Iranian diplomat lamented that while Takfiri and extremist terrorists have disrupted peace in the region and the whole world, executing an unarmed dissident who just criticized the Saudi regime for religious and political issues depicts a total lack of wisdom and shrewdness among Saudies. Jaber Ansari categorically condemned the move and drew attentions to the fact that Saudis, who support and feed terrorists and extremists Takfiries in other countries, are very authoritarian and repressive in dealing with their home dissidents.

Mehr quotes strong language by Ayatollah Seyyed Ahmad Khatami, a senior member of Iran’s Assembly of Experts:

“{T}he crime of executing of Sheikh al-Nimr marks only one link in a chain of crimes and that Al Saud will eventually get wiped out. … the al-Saud family have been committing savage crimes since their emergence and the crimes in Yemen will remain in the history of the world as a sign of eternal shame for the Saudi regime.”

Scores of news agencies report this vivid quote by Khatami from a Mehr News Agency story, It’s not on their English-lanuage website, and journalists stuck in the 20th century don’t give links.

“I have no doubt that this pure blood will stain the collar of the House of Saud and wipe them from the pages of history, … The crime of executing Sheikh Nimr is part of a criminal pattern by this treacherous family … the Islamic world is expected to cry out and denounce this infamous regime as much as it can,”

What have we learned?

That is today’s exciting clickbait! For answers we can turn to Stratfor.

The Shiite minority in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in recent months is showing signs of assertiveness. The latest incident involves comments from the imam of the Kaaba in Mecca, Sheikh Adil al-Kalbani, who said during an interview with the BBC Arabic that while the situation of the common Shia was debatable, Shiite clerics were apostates who should not be allowed to join the kingdom’s highest religious body, the Supreme Council of Ulema. Al-Kalbani, the son of an immigrant, was appointed as the first black imam of the Kaaba earlier this year as part of Riyadh’s efforts to counter charges of racism. His remarks triggered widespread reaction from within the Saudi Shiite community (estimated to be as much as 20% of the kingdom’s population and concentrated in the oil-rich Eastern Province), with Saudi Shiite clerics calling for the government to dismiss al-Kalbani.

This development comes amid increased sectarian tensions in the aftermath of clashes between security forces and Shiite worshipers in the city of Medina in February. The following month a key Shiite cleric, Sheikh Nimr Baqer al-Nimr, threatened in a provocative sermon that the Shia would secede from the kingdom if their rights were not respected. Although Shiite unrest in the face of persecution by the Wahhabi majority is not a new thing in the Saudi kingdom, it was largely contained until the incident in Medina. Openly demanding the dismissal of the imam of the Kaaba is rather unprecedented — an indicator of the degree to which the Saudi Shia have been emboldened.

This situation comes at a time when the Saudi government is pursuing a process of political and religious reform designed to contain ultraconservatism within the Wahhabi religious establishment.

… What this means is that the Saudis are in a very difficult situation on both the internal and external fronts. Domestically, Riyadh cannot pursue a reform agenda and not give recognition to the Shia, who threaten to stir the pot within a key pillar of the state — the Wahhabi religious establishment. On the regional level, Saudi Arabia needs to be able to insulate its Shiite community from Iran and the empowered Arab Shia in Iraq and Lebanon.  {From May 2009.}

That sounds ominous, but less so when seven years later. Fast forward to 2011…

Unrest in Saudi Arabia’s Shiite-concentrated, oil-rich Eastern Province began in February 2011, when Shiite protesters began calling for the release of long-held Shiite political prisoners. That demand was soon echoed by a call for political reforms, including increased rights for Shia. In the first months of simmering unrest, Shiite protesters largely abstained from violence against Saudi security forces. The first instances of violence directed toward security forces and admittedly led by Shiite activists occurred in October and November 2011, with the most recent incidents taking place this past week. Such admissions were apparently made to invite a strong reprisal, thus prolonging the unrest by creating more opportunities for funeral marches and public protests.  {From January 2012}

Scary news from the world’s largest oil reservoir. What happened next?

… since March 2012, protests have been infrequent — there have been only a few reported demonstrations each month — and the use of violence against authorities has declined.

This dynamic changed July 8 with the arrest of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent Shiite cleric. Three days later, 37 Shiite clerics in Eastern Province signed a joint statement calling for the government to end sectarian discrimination and to implement significant reforms. In light of the spiraling events in Syria, the timing of al-Nimr’s arrest suggests that it was likely an attempt by Riyadh to pre-empt any possible Iranian move to exploit Shiite unrest in Saudi Arabia. But the move backfired, resulting in near-daily protests, fires set in the streets, and renewed use of improvised incendiary devices against security forces.  {From July 2012.}

Protests died down, then rose again! And since then…

Shiite youth activists in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province are pressing on with their increasingly violent fight for greater political freedom in the kingdom. Their tactics have evolved since the outset of protests in early 2011 … {From January 2013}

Quite exciting, but so far no results from the protests. And since then…

Saudi Arabia’s problem with its Shia minority may have changed dramatically. On Nov. 3, as many as 10 unidentified gunmen, presumed to be Salafist extremists, opened fire at a Shia mosque in al-Ahsa, a district in oil-rich Eastern Province, killing seven people and wounding 12 others; an eighth individual was found dead in a car in a neighboring village, also presumed to be the result of an assault by Salafist extremists. The attacks come nearly one month after a Saudi court delivered a death sentence to Nimr al-Nimr, a radical Shiite cleric who was arrested in 2012. Since the incidents, Saudi authorities have killed one suspect and arrested nine others in raids near the capital and near Eastern Province.

The event surely confounds Riyadh, which is struggling to manage a restive Shia population, jihadists and ultraconservative tribesmen allied with elements from the religious establishment. Importantly, Riyadh’s problems at home will add to its problems abroad by upsetting Iran and its Shia allies. {From November 2014.}

Conclusions: about Saudi Arabia

A year after this “dramatic change” the protests continue, but on a very low level. Seven years of exciting stories, leading to almost nothing. The Shiite minority in Saudi Arabia is restive, an unlit power keg over the largest Saudi oil fields. Iran probably seeks to ignite unrest in Saudi Arabia, and has probably done so for decades. Perhaps someday the Saudi Shiites will rebel. It’s one of the world’s many potential flashpoints.

Regime instability is easily exaggerated. Consider the massive race riots of the late 1960s and early 1970’s, with National Guard troops in American cities every year. Or the massive student protests that shake Paris every generation or so. These were headline dominating news, with gurus predicting “the world turned upside down”. But the inherent stability of society returned and these events were almost forgotten.

Conclusions: about us

Much of our foreign affairs reporting exaggerates instability abroad and threats to the US. For example, the recent stories about the tottering Saudi regime, or last years’ Do thousands of Saudi deserters show the Kingdom to be a house of cards?  Scores of geopolitical gurus (amateur and professional) exaggerate each incident as the beginning of the end for the Saudi Princes — omitting (through skill or ignorance) any historical context.

There are sound business reasons for this. These stories are clickbait. The over-supply of Journalists and news media have forced them to reach for audience with clickbait, helping to make newspapers and TV news among the least-trusted institutions in America.  The websites scratching for survival on the edges of the news media are even more desperate. The news becomes so tarted up that it resembles fiction more than fact. Without careful selection of sources, the information highway entertains but makes us stupid.

The truth (reliable analysis) is out there. For example, this accurate prediction in 2011 by Nawaf Obai at Foreign Policy (a good source of sound analysis): “The day of Saudi collapse is not near“. I also recommend Stratfor for anyone interested in geopolitical news. It is inexpensive and their articles consistently put hot news in a broader context (they are among the best at putting current news in a larger historical context).

Other posts about Saudi Arabia

Recommended books: On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines — and Future by Karen Elliott House (2013) and A History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani (1991).

For More Information

How the Saudi king benefits from a cleric’s execution” by Peter Van Buren at Reuters, 6 January 2016.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts information & disinformation – new media & old, about journalism, about clickbait, about Saudi Arabia, and especially these…

On Saudi Arabia
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A History of the Arab Peoples
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