COLUMN-Saudi execution exposes dangerous political and religious divisions: Kemp – RTRS
(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
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
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
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
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
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
Following Nimr’s execution, hundreds of protesters marched
through Qatif on Saturday, according to eyewitness reports.
(Editing by David Evans)
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Keywords: SAUDI IRAN/KEMP (COLUMN)
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