COLUMN-Saudi execution exposes dangerous political and religious divisions: Kemp – RTRS

06-Jan-2016 07:00:00

(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a

columnist for Reuters.)

By John Kemp

LONDON, Jan 6 (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia’s execution of

Shi’ite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr has exposed the dangerous

political, religious and socio-economic fault lines which run

through the kingdom and the Gulf.

News of the execution sparked some unrest among Shi’ite

communities in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province and in

neighbouring Bahrain as well as in southern Iraq.

Iran’s supreme leader effectively called for the overthrow

of the Saudi monarchy, drawing a furious response from the Saudi

government, which accused the Islamic Republic of interfering in

the kingdom’s internal affairs.

Iranian protesters stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran, and

Saudi Arabia responded by breaking off diplomatic relations and

encouraging allied Sunni governments to do the same.

Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United Nations told

reporters on Monday "we are not natural born enemies of Iran."

But restoring diplomatic relations would only be possible if

Iran were to "cease and desist from interfering in the internal

affairs of other countries, including our own".

The rivalry between the two big powers in the Gulf is often

simplified to a contest between a conservative Sunni monarchy

and a revolutionary Shi’ite republic; the reality is more

complicated and worrying.

Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province lies at the dangerous

intersection of great power rivalry between Iran and Saudi

Arabia, sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shi’ite, social and

economic grievances, and the world’s largest oil reserves.


Researchers at Columbia University have put together an

outstanding collection of maps illustrating the cultural,

religious, tribal and linguistic divisions across the Gulf

region (

They show Shi’ite majority areas stretching in an arc up

through Iran, across southern Iraq and down along the eastern

coast of Saudi Arabia into Bahrain, with a further outpost in the

highlands of northern Yemen


Iran has taken a special interest in the Shi’ite communities

in all these countries; and in some cases the government in

Tehran, especially the Revolutionary Guards and other hardline

elements, have tried to export their influence and encouraged


But it is also clear that many of these Shi’ite communities

have strong local grievances and much of the unrest has local

roots rather than simply being stirred up by Iran.

Shi’ite communities in Iraq, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have

all suffered discrimination and marginalisation at the hands of

Sunni-dominated governments and societies over the last century.

What adds to the destabilising cocktail is that areas that

are home to many Shi’ite communities are also where most of the

region’s oil and gas fields and remaining reserves are.

Southern Shi’ite-dominated Iraq contains far more oil and

gas than the Sunni-majority areas in the centre of the country.

And in Saudi Arabia, Eastern Province is where almost all

the country’s oil and gas reserves are to be found


Conditions in the Eastern Province remain relatively opaque

because access and reporting are controlled by the Saudi

government, which also strongly discourages international

discussion about political risks affecting the kingdom.

The potential for serious unrest is one of those low

probability, high consequence risks that are difficult to

estimate properly but which should not be ignored.

Unrest remains a tail risk rather than a central risk. It is

much more likely the Eastern Province will remain peaceful, and

much less likely that it will see social upheaval.

No one will make money betting on political instability in

Saudi Arabia or unrest in the oilfields because the probability

in any given year is low.

The risk of unrest could be as low as 5 percent or even 1

percent but that is not the same as zero. The same could have

been said about the risk of upheaval in Egypt or Tunisia before


The risks are real enough that they are perceived as a

serious danger by the Saudi government, which continues to

maintain a heavy security presence in the area, and they help

explain why the confrontation between Riyadh and Tehran is so

bitter and so personal.


In most parts of the Middle East, national boundaries do not

correspond to religious, cultural, linguistic or tribal

divisions, and Saudi Arabia is no exception.

The kingdom is an amalgamation of the conservative central

region (Najd) with the western coast (Hijaz) and the eastern

oases along the Gulf coast (al-Hasa), all of which were

separately administered until comparatively recently


King Abdulaziz, ruler of the Najd, conquered al-Hasa in 1913

from the disintegrating Ottoman Empire, and added the Hijaz in

1924/25, finally unifying the country in 1932. But there are

still major cultural and religious differences between the

regions and even within them.

Much of the ruling political and religious elite is drawn

from the Najd, which is also identified with the austere Wahhabi

form of Islam.

Hijaz was the home of more liberal interpretations of Islam

while the majority of the population in al-Hasa followed Shi’ite

forms of Islam.

As part of an effort at nation-building, conservative

religious views from the Najd have been imposed on other parts

of the country.

According to the U.S. government’s Commission on

International Religious Freedom, the modern Saudi state

"privileges its own interpretation of Sunni Islam over all other

interpretations" and "restricts most forms of public religious

expression inconsistent with its particular interpretation of

Sunni Islam".

One result is a long history of tension between Sunnis,

especially those following a strict Wahhabi interpretation, and

the Shi’ite communities in al-Hasa, now renamed the Eastern


"Authorities continue to repress and discriminate against

dissident clerics and members of the Shi’a community" the

Commission on International Religious Freedom wrote in its

latest annual report.

"The Shi’a community also faces discrimination in education,

employment, the military, political representation, and the

judiciary" the Commission concluded ("International Religious

Freedom Report 2015").

The Saudi government denies any discrimination.

Recent reports have noted progress towards ending official

discrimination, but how much unofficial discrimination remains

is unclear because the Saudi government strongly discourages


As recently as 2012, the Commission found: "There are no

Shi’a ministers in the government, only 5 of the 150-member

Shura (Consultative Council) are Shi’a Muslims, and there are

very few Shi’a Muslim leaders in high-level government

positions, particularly in the security agencies."

"In predominantly Sunni Muslim areas of the country outside

the Eastern Province, Shi’a and Ismaili Muslims face harassment,

arrest and detention," it concluded ("International Religious

Freedom Report 2012").


Sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shi’ites have

periodically resulted in unrest in the Eastern Province –

including two major labour strikes against the Arabian American

Oil Company (Aramco) in 1953 and 1956, a full-scale uprising in

1979/80, and demonstrations in 2011.

The 1953 and 1956 strikes "were sparked by grievances over

low wages, poor working and living conditions, and racism,"

according to historian Toby Jones of Rutgers University ("Desert

Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia", 2010).

"From the beginning, Aramco was acutely aware of

compatibility issues between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims," the

company’s former chief executive Frank Jungers wrote in his

memoir ("The Caravan Goes On: How Aramco and Saudi Arabia Grew

Up Together" 2013).

"The Shi’ites were definitely in the minority nationally but

made up the majority in the Eastern Province and tended to live

in separate areas. The company was careful as a matter of policy

not to allow this religious difference to become a factor in the

training or evaluation of an employee," Jungers explained.

Aramco worked hard to professionalise its labour force, but

the fact Jungers mentioned religious differences so prominently

underscores the potential for tension.

In 1979, protests erupted in Qatif and a number of other

Shi’ite areas of the Eastern Province, as well as in

neighbouring Bahrain, and became violent following

confrontations with the security forces.

The unrest, which had a strong sectarian element, came only

a few months after the shah was violently overthrown and the

Islamic Revolution brought to power Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei

in Iran.

The new government in Tehran sought to export its

revolutionary ideology and openly encouraged Shi’ite communities

in neighbouring Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia to revolt

against their Sunni rulers.

Khomenei’s government broadcast its revolutionary message by

beaming a powerful radio signal directly into the Eastern


"There is little doubt that the Iranian Revolution helped

galvanize politics and energize dissent among Shiites in

neighbouring countries," according to Jones.

"The revolution helped explain both the timing and some of

the forces that encouraged Saudis to take to the streets."

In 2011, there were again violent protests in the Eastern

Province and Bahrain as part of the wider Arab Spring, again

mostly involving Shi’ite communities, which were put down by the

security services.

Following Nimr’s execution, hundreds of protesters marched

through Qatif on Saturday, according to eyewitness reports.

(Editing by David Evans)

((john.kemp; +44 207 542 9726 and on twitter



John Kemp

Senior Market Analyst


Twitter: @JKempEnergy

Phone: +44 7789 483 325

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