Saudi Arabia’s Shia Youth: A Crisis in the Making

Though Saudi Arabia is today the Gulf’s major regional and economic power, its regime is struggling with internal dynamics which have the potential to seriously threaten continued security and stability. One major factor underpinning the government’s domestic challenges is the sectarian nature of Sunni-Shia relations. Saudi Shia are subject to significant government-sponsored policies of discrimination and repression that are buoyed by the monarchy’s support for ultra-conservative Wahhabism and sectarian concerns. Treated and regarded as second-class citizens, Saudi Shia feel an increasing resentment towards the Saudi Monarchy and state. As Saudi Arabia’s Shia live predominantly in the oil-rich areas of the Eastern Province, this resentment, should it continue to grow, could become a considerable economic and security issue for the Saudi regime. Of particular importance are the attitudes of Saudi Arabia’s Shia youth, who are more politically perceptive and active than earlier generations and who constitute the future of Saudi Sunni-Shia sectarianism. This paper details the nature of Sunni-Shia relations in Saudi Arabia, with a particular emphasis on the perceptions and activities of the Shia youth. Through examination of the government’s history of sectarianism and policies of discrimination, a significant security threat to the Saudi Monarchy is identified and described. The paper furthers analyzes the ramifications of future scenarios of government engagement versus non-engagement in reforms aimed at redressing Shia grievances.

Around 15 percent of Saudi Arabia’s 27 million inhabitants is Shia, making them a distinct minority in the otherwise overwhelmingly Sunni state. They live predominantly in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province, with the largest concentrations in the area around Qatif and Al-Hasa.[i] There is also a small Shia community in Medina, and about half a million Ismaili Shia and several thousand Zaydi Shia reside in the province of Najran along the border with Yemen.[ii] Saudi Shia are mostly adherents to the Twelver Branch of Shi’ism, drawing concern from the Saudi regime about their loyalty to Iran, which also follows the Twelver school.[iii]

In terms of population and political activity, Saudi Arabia has a considerable youth problem; more than half of the country’s population is under 21 years old. Frustrated with their political and economic marginalization and highly internet-savvy, the youth have found ways to mobilize and protest against the government in ways that undermine the regime’s political suppression.[iv] The Shia youth are no different and, with the added grievances of discrimination and sectarianism, present an even greater challenge to the Saudi state.

Shia dissent is the product of unequal distribution of political capital and economic resources. Though these inequalities affect many of Saudi Arabia’s provinces and a great number of Saudi Sunni, they are particularly felt in the Eastern Province, where most Shia reside. The eastern areas of Saudi Arabia have remained a lesser priority to the regime than the center and west in political power, economic development, and importance in the narratives and character of the state.[v] It is there that the regime’s policies of exclusion and discrimination are most deeply rooted and most heavily pronounced. Widespread unemployment and exclusion from the state’s patronage system is growing, and acutely affects the Shia youth. Infrastructure and services are being strained and the public sector is growing increasingly bloated.[vi] It would be an oversimplification to frame Saudi Shia dissent as purely a sectarian matter: economic hardship and political marginalization are largely the motivating factors behind Shia protests against the regime. However, discrimination and repression based on sectarian lines abets and amplifies the resentment Saudi Shia feel and further exacerbates their feelings of marginalization.[vii]

Easterners lack the ability to provide input into municipal budgets and to influence the administration of the province, creating significant political frustration. While this also affects eastern Sunni, other policies of discrimination are further imposed on the Shia. They are barred from senior positions in the government and central government agencies, such as the Ministry of Interior, the diplomatic corps, the National Guard, and the Ministry of Defense.[viii] At present there is no single Shia cabinet member or deputy minister.[ix] While at the local level Shia are better represented in the municipal councils, real power in the province lies instead at the governorate level, which is firmly controlled by the royal family.[x]

Shia grievances extend beyond the political sphere and into daily-life confrontations. Police forces in the Eastern Province are usually staffed by Sunnis from other parts of country, creating tension between local Shia communities and law enforcement officers. Shia are often subject to arbitrary arrests, searches, and seizures.[xi] Saudi education is framed in an anti-Shia manner, with school textbooks frequently containing derogatory allusions to the Shia and occasionally arguments for socially excluding or even killing them.[xii] Shia also face obstacles towards working in the education system; currently there is no Shia head of a university or girls school professor.[xiii] Shia treatment under the Saudi judicial system, which is governed by the Sunni Hanbali school of jurisprudence, has been source of dissent. Only in limited, Shia-majority areas such as Qatif and al-Hasa has the government allowed Shia courts, and even there the Ministry of Justice often appoints judges without consultation with the local communities.[xiv] The power of these Shia courts is also restricted by Sunni courts, which have veto power over the Shia courts’ rulings.[xv] Meanwhile, Shia in other parts of the country, including areas of the Eastern Province and Shia areas of Medina, have access to only Sunni courts.

Saudi Shia are also subject to religious discrimination, a reflection of the sectarian nature of Shia-Sunni relations in the country. Government-sponsored Salafi clerics are generally united in the view that Shia deviate from Salafi orthodoxy, consequently branding them ‘rejectionists.’ Senior Sunni clerics who have made statements that Shia are heretics and infidels have not been silenced by the regime, indicating at the least an official toleration of such views.[xvi] Though the regime permits them private religious gatherings, Saudi Shia face bureaucratic and legal obstacles when licensing mosques and mourning houses. Shia are not allowed to build mosques or run places of worship in cities with mixed Sunni-Shia populations.[xvii] There are no Shia representatives in the Senior Ulema Council, the country’s highest religious body that issues religious edicts affecting nearly every aspect of political and social life in Saudi Arabia.[xviii]

Underlying this discrimination is the alliance between the ruling family and the Wahhabi/Salafi religious establishment, an alliance that has existed since the beginnings of the Saudi state. The religious establishment is given a prominent place in Saudi Arabia’s political and social discourse, and in return legitimizes and buttresses the royal family’s rule.[xix] For many clerics, their continued access to political power is ensured by promoting sectarianism. Any recognition or support of the Shia identity would effectively undermine Salafi primacy in the country’s religious and social affairs.[xx] In order to manage demands for reforms and prevent any cross-sectarian cooperation among activists, the regime has tried to portray Eastern Province protests as exclusively Shia in character. Sectarianism has proven to be an effective tactic for the regime to dispel popular dissent. The regime has allowed the proliferation of anti-Shia sermons and rhetoric, which serve as a way to placate potential critics in the Salafi establishment and further deflect popular dissent.[xxi]

Sectarianism is also borne out of Saudi geopolitical concerns. Saudi Arabia has been suspicious of potential transnational ties between its Shia and Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. A particular source of suspicions arises from the Shia institution of the ‘marj taqlid,’ the practice of senior Shia clerics giving transnational spiritual, social, and juridical edicts. There is concern about the extent to which the edicts are directive versus consultative and whether they extend into political matters.[xxii] Ties between Saudi Shia and Iran have been a particular source of inflated regime suspicion. Saudi Arabia and Iran have had tense relations since the 1979 Revolution, and events such as the 1982 and 1987 clashes between Saudi security forces and Iranian pilgrims have further strained their relationship. Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s condemnations of Saudi Arabia resulted in a Saudi regime wary of Iranian meddling in its domestic affairs. Iranian subversion, the regime reasons, would come about through Saudi Arabia’s Shia population.[xxiii] Saudi Shia acknowledge their longstanding ties with Shia clerics in Iraq and Iran; concurrently, they assert that their religious alliance does not amount to loyalty to foreign governments.[xxiv] Furthermore, while there is historical precedent of Saudi Shia supporting subversive groups with Iranian connections, they now overwhelmingly eschew political ties with Iran and reject its theocratic governance.[xxv]

The Saudi regime has found political capital out of its policies that politically marginalize Shia and Sunni citizens alike. By stifling political freedoms and participation, the regime is able to suppress reform movements that would undermine the status quo. The royal family has supported this political environment through its narrative that the country’s citizens are prone to Islamist and tribal passions and are therefore not ready for democracy or civil society. The monarchy legitimizes itself by arguing that it fulfills the role of a mediator that binds the fractious citizenry together.[xxvi] Of course, activists point out that it is the lack of civil society and participatory government that support the existence of sectarianism and tribalism in Saudi society.[xxvii]

The historical development of sectarianism accounts for the growing involvement of aggressive, activist Shia youth in contemporary protest movements. The prevalent sectarianism that has been a pervasive element in the country’s internal dynamics can be traced to the early time of the Kingdom’s formation. The Emirate of Diriyah, an early Saudi state formed through an alliance between Muhammad Ibn Saud and the ultra-conservative imam Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, had clashed with the Shia of the Arabian peninsula. In 1913, King Abdulaziz Al Saud, founder of modern Saudi Arabia, seized al-Hasa. Wahhabi clerics ordered the demolition of several Shia mosques and took over preaching duties of remaining mosques in order to convert the population. Al Saud’s radical ‘Ikhwan’ army conducted a vicious anti-Shia rampage, calling on the king to either convert or permit the killing of Shia. Despite the King’s refusal, the army acted unilaterally, and in 1926 massacred large numbers of Shia.[xxviii] In the decades which followed, Saudi Shia continued to be treated as second class citizens, having religious freedoms and civil liberties strongly curtailed through regime policies.

The late 1970s saw increasing dissatisfaction among the Shia at the government’s failure to deliver on promises to improve living conditions in the Eastern Province.[xxix] The Iranian Revolution of 1979 further spurred heightened activism among Shia in the Eastern Province and signaled a shift of power from quietist Shia leaders to revolutionary-minded, younger activists. In November 1979, Shia protesters defied a government ban on Muharram rituals and staged demonstrations, calling on the government to end discrimination. The regime responded with repressive measures, arresting hundreds of activists and killing at least two dozen Shia protesters.[xxx] Meanwhile, leaders of the uprising founded a protest group known as the ‘Organization for the Islamic Revolution,’ who developed close ties with the revolutionary Iranian government. Saudi clerical and lay activists soon became instrumental in supporting this group.[xxxi]

Eventually, Iran became dissatisfied with its inability to control the Organization for the Islamic Revolution, leading it to form a more militant group in Saudi Arabia known as the ‘Hezbollah al-Hejaz.’[xxxii] This group launched a series of terrorist attacks within Saudi, including a 1987 attack at a gas plant and a 1988 bombing of petrochemical installations in the Eastern Province. In response, the Saudi government accused the Shia of sabotage, executing several and placing further restrictions on their civil and economic freedoms.[xxxiii] By the end of the 1980s, a growing number of Saudi Shia activists recognized the limits of revolution. They viewed accommodation with the government as a more realistic approach for achieving reforms. As such, in 1993 a number of Shia leaders of the Organization for the Islamic Revolution made a deal with the Saudi government, promising to abandon violence in exchange for assurances regarding political reform and the redress of grievances.[xxxiv] This marked the beginning of a period of peaceful activism by clerics and activists known now as the ‘Reformists,’ or ‘Islahiyyin.’ Following this reconciliation, Saudi Shia political activity consisted largely of grassroots civil society work, participation in local council elections, dialogue with like-minded reformists, and petitions to the royal family.[xxxv]

King Abdullah’s accession to the throne in 2005 brought Eastern Province Shia the hope that reform could be actualized through the political process. Abdullah sponsored a number of initiatives aimed at reducing sectarian divisions and increasing public involvement in political life and dialogue. Yet these reforms, more cosmetic than tangible, ultimately failed to live up their promises, as power over local budgets, personnel appointments, and administration remained in the hands of the Ministry of Interior instead of local communities. Meanwhile, cross-sectarian dialogue became undone due to rising sectarian tensions in Saudi society and government obstacles to such efforts.[xxxvi]

Conflict broke out in 2009, when clashes erupted between Shia pilgrims visiting the cemetery of Shia imams in Medina and members of the regime’s morality police. Security forces moved into Medina’s Shia neighborhoods, arresting and injuring numbers of residents. The regime’s response to the riots indicated to the Shia in the Eastern Province that the royal family’s outreach efforts had ended. Soon after, the most intense of demonstration of Shia dissent since 1979 occurred as protests erupted in Qatif, al-Safwa, and al-Awamiya.[xxxvii] On March 13th, as the protests in al-Awamiya continued around him, an outspoken Shia cleric named Nimr al-Nimr gave a sermon lambasting the regime and suggesting the East secede. Nimr al-Nimr’s brazen statements and outright rejection of the Islahiyyin’s participatory approach quickly won him support and fame among frustrated young Shia men. The Saudi regime soon arrested al-Nimr and a number of his supporters.[xxxviii] However, far from stifling dissent, al-Nimr’s arrest bolstered his support and further galvanized the Shia youth’s resentment of the regime.

The 2009 protests and al-Nimr’s arrest marked a turning point in Saudi Shia dissent, with a younger, more activist, and more aggressive cohort of Shia activists coming to play prominent roles. Disagreements about protest strategies and methods for reform began to fall along generational lines, with the younger Shia seeing the Islahiyyin as having been co-opted by the regime.[xxxix] For many, outright opposition seemed like the only means to achieve reform.[xl]

This current came to a head in the wake of the 2011 Arab Uprisings. Youthful Sunni and Shia activists, inspired by the crowds of Tahrir Square and Benghazi, planned nationwide demonstrations scheduled for March 11th. In early March youth groups across the country formed a cross-sectarian movement called the ‘Free Youth Coalition,’ which issued a lengthy list of political and economic demands. Yet this effort was thwarted by fundamental disagreements and distrust among coalition members. The Shia wanted to focus more on reforms specific to discrimination in the Eastern Province rather than overarching, national reforms.[xli] The Shia preempted the planned March 11th protest with protests of their own, the first of which occurred on March 3rd and 4th. The regime responded with the arrest of dozens of protesters in Qatif.[xlii] In the face of increased security presence around Riyadh and Jeddah, the March 11th cross-sectarian protest, dubbed the ‘Day of Rage,’ came and went without mass protest.[xliii]

The Saudi regime’s counteroffensive against took several forms – the King announced a package of twenty economic gifts to the people worth an estimated $93 billion.[xliv] A media campaign was launched to discredit the protests, emphasizing their destructive nature and portraying them as serving subversive Shia interests.[xlv] Anti-Shia sentiment was mobilized through Salafi religious scholars who issued fatwas against the protests and warned of an Iranian-Shia conspiracy.

The regime also relied on local supporters among the Shia clergy to dampen the protests. This served to bring the clerics into direct conflict with the frustrated, activist youth and did very little to lessen their protest fervor. [xlvi] Throughout the year, demonstrations continued and were met with security crackdowns. On August 3rd, eight months after the first protests, the popular cleric Tawfiq al-Amir was arrested, sparking further activity. On October 3rd, security forces clashed with armed protests in al-Awamiya, resulting in numbers of wounded police officers and civilians. In November, a 19-year-old was shot and killed at a checkpoint near Qatif, galvanizing the youth to take to the streets en mass. By the end of the protests, five people had been killed and others wounded. In response to the protests, the regime tried to link the opposition and violence to Iranian subversion. Instances of armed assaults by Shia youth on police vehicles, drive-by shootings, street marches, and police raids soon became near-nightly occurrences.[xlvii]

Nimr al-Nimr issued a sermon demanding the end of the monarchy on February 10th, 2012. Protesters made their way through al-Awamiya, shouting demands for the release of prisoners and reforms. In the ensuing chaos, a 21-year-old protester was killed.[xlviii] In late June, Nimr al-Nimr delivered a tirade against the rousing family, praising the death of Saudi crown prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz. Saudi security forces soon after arrested him following a car chase and shootout. His arrest was met with intense and popular anger.[xlix] The summer and fall of 2012 were accordingly marked with sustained protests in the east.[l]

There were encouraging signs that the government was ready to take steps to redress grievances in early 2013. Some television networks that spouted anti-Shia rhetoric were shut down, an additional Shia member was appointed to the Majlis al-Shura, and the longtime governor of the Eastern Province was removed from his post. Many activists remained pessimistic about real change, and by mid-year government policy was again portraying Shia activism as Iranian subversion.[li] It was during this time that the country’s state prosecutor called for the crucifixion of Nimr al-Nimr.[lii] In August of 2014, protests broke out across the Eastern Province calling for the release of Nimr al-Nimr and other political prisoners.[liii] In turn, the government announced in mid-September that Nimr al-Nimr’s sentencing would be postponed, likely recognizing that a harsh verdict could spark another round of intense unrest and renewed protests.[liv]

On October 15th, Nimr al-Nimr was sentenced to death, having been found guilty of “not obeying King Abdullah, not pledging allegiance to him or the state, incitement of vandalism and sectarian strife, demonizing Saudi rulers, calling for the collapse of the state and insulting relatives and companions of the Prophet Muhammad.”[lv] The verdict has raised fears of renewed protests and dissent.[lvi] If anything, the sentencing will further alienate Shia youth from the government and will inhibit any peaceful movement toward both addressing dissent and reconciling the surmounting issues that feed frustration and discontent. In fact, as recently as October 18th, small-scale protests against the sentence have begun to break out in the east.[lvii]

The history of marginalization provides ample context of Shia dissent in Saudi Arabia. Discrimination, limited reforms, and repression have frustrated Saudi Shia, pushing them to release their resentment through violent protests. The younger generation has grown progressively more impatient and dissatisfied with the older generation’s inability to end discriminatory policies and bring about tangible improvements in living conditions and jobs. The failure of the Islahiyyin’s moderate, pro-dialogue approach for addressing grievances has suggested to the youth that a more aggressive, violent style of dissent is necessary.[lviii] The youth further view many of the Shia clergy and members of the Islahiyyin as being co-opted by the Saudi government, further contributing to a generational divide.[lix]

Youth protest networks across the Eastern Province have grown significantly in recent years, with cellular groups such as the ‘Free Youth Coalition,’ ‘Free Men of Sayhat,’ ‘Supporters of al-Qatif,’ and ‘Eastern Region Revolution’ gaining popular support. Several of these networks merged during the 2012 protests to form the ‘Freedom and Justice Coalition,’ which now plays a leading role in organizing demonstrations across the region.[lx] While these organizations are similar to older networks in their demands for equality and constitutional monarchy, they are more active and aggressive in their protests. As the prominent Islahiyyin leader Hassan al-Saffar noted in a 2012 sermon, “Previous generations tolerated and adapted to problems, the current generation is different.”[lxi] A marked difference and generational divide exists in how Shia resentment is being expressed, readily demonstrated by the violence which has broken out over the last few years, and which is the worst seen since the late 1970s.

These youth networks make skillful use of social media to coordinate street protests and to disseminate criticism of the regime. Through the many different platform of social media, they have launched a renewed effort at dialogue with Sunnis across the country. This represents a departure from dialogue efforts that historically took place in the regime’s officially sanctioned forums, which activists see as a means to circumscribe any true coordination on reform.[lxii] Social media has also contributed to the growing split between Shia youth activists and the older generation; the Shia clergy, who have largely attempted to moderate and minimize protest violence, appear increasingly out of touch.[lxiii] Social media, not the sermon, has become the primary channel of political communication in the east, passing the initiative in planning protests and protest strategies from older activists to the internet-savvy youth. The Saudi government attempts to limit online dissent and protest coordination by blocking websites, monitoring facebook posts, and shutting down blogs which criticize the regime.[lxiv] Yet the nature of the internet is such that the government cannot fully succeed in quelling the online activity. As the 2011 ‘Arab Spring’ and 2014 Hong Kong protests amply demonstrate, internet-savvy protest organizers can find new technologies or websites to use for their purposes, always staying one step ahead of the regime.[lxv]

Significantly, many of these youth organizations have shown a clear deference to and support for the teachings of clerics such as Nimr al-Nimr and Tawfiq al-Amir. Although their rhetoric is unapologetically inflammatory against the Saudi monarchy, they profoundly advocate for Shia dignity and justice. The themes of their sermons and speeches, which call for redressing grievances, strongly resonate among the endemically underemployed and underprivileged youth. Nimr al-Nimr and others have been instrumental in mobilizing activity the streets.[lxvi] It is this connection, between those in need and those who advocate, that presents a distinct challenge for the government. Allowing individuals such as Nimr al-Nimr to deliver scathing critiques of the Saudi government could make the regime appear weak, which in turn could invigorate and energize opposition movements and lead to more demands. However, as history has shown, arresting and silencing these clerics has pushed protests into the streets, with demands for releasing the clerics catapulting into full-fledged demonstrations.[lxvii]

The undertow of sectarianism throughout Saudi Arabia’s Shia population, pulling on its youth, provides the fodder for a crisis in the making for the regime. The government faces a hotbed of simmering dissent in its Eastern Province, dissent that has been brought about by inequitable and discriminatory policies that diminish economic, social, and educational opportunities. The reluctance to address Shia grievances and a fear-driven approach towards ending demonstrations have not only perpetuated Shia dissatisfaction, but have convinced the youth that more aggressive forms of opposition are a viable option. The root causes of protest – numerous long-standing government policies and historic circumstances that have left the Shia feeling oppressed – are systemic and entrenched.

If the Saudi government wishes to effectively deal with its Shia opposition, it should actually address and resolve these issues. Its other approaches to handling the problem have proven ineffective, if not counter-productive. However, ‘cosmetic’ or palliative attempts at reform would be ineffective, exemplified by King Abdullah’s early attempts at dialogue and reform, which were followed years later by the “Day of Rage” and further protests. One set of tangible solutions has been provided by a 125-page document commissioned by the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in 2012 that investigated the protests in the Eastern Province. It objectively identified the roots of eastern dissent as entrenched political, social, and economic problems rather than criminal or Iranian subversion.[lxviii] It suggested a series of reforms which include, among others, ending sectarianism in the media, releasing all political prisoners, reforming the local police station in al-Awamiya, and boosting the development of the east through housing projects, youth sports facilities, and better schools. It further suggested that a commission be established to investigate the Ministry of Interior’s actions in al-Awamiya.[lxix]

Ending sectarian tensions would necessitate shifts in social and media attitudes, education, and local judicial processes. Reforms which would be key steps in these changes include implementing Shia representation in the Senior Ulema Council and Supreme Judicial Council, permitting Shia wider freedoms to worship, and formally recognizing the Shia Ja’fari school of jurisprudence. Resolving underlying economic issues such as unemployment and discrimination for Shia will be a long-term challenge. Changes in Saudi business practices and bureaucratic reforms, such as integrating Shia into local police forces and the Ministry of Interior, would be first steps in that process.[lxx] Empowering local municipal councils and giving broader oversight to community organizations will enable Shia leaders in the east to bolster local infrastructure, diversify the local economy, and improve educational and sports facilities. Doing so is vital to staving off youth-driven opposition and dissent.

To ease and eventually end protest movements and oppositional tensions, the Saudi government should end sweeping laws against “sedition,” censorship, and arbitrary arrests. These standing policies have aggravated youth dissent in the east and have been the cause of other protests across the country. The government should recognize internal dissent as a step towards building a stronger, unified country, rather than portray dissent as evidence of foreign subversion. Not doing so will perpetuate the communication barriers that limit open political dialogue and contribute to further alienation of the younger generation. While much of the youth has little sympathy for Iran, an increasingly gloomy future could push them towards radicalization. With traces of the Iranian-backed militant group ‘Hezbollah al-Hejaz’ still found in the east, the government’s denouncing of activists as foreign agents could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.[lxxi] In reality, reform in the east could be seen as supportive of the regime’s strategic aim of blunting Iranian influence; Saudi Shia would have little desire for a pro-Iranian orientation if they were treated fairly by their government.

 Implementing comprehensive reforms to conciliate its Shia minority is easier said than done. Policies of discrimination are in place because of historical circumstances and political arraignments hat have brought the royal family into power and sustain its power. Cultural and religious biases and prejudices, ubiquitous throughout the world, are most difficult to alter. Letting go of the status-quo and becoming vulnerable to the financial, political, and social risk that comes with change is anathema to most leaders. The regime has evidently calculated that it is easier or more beneficial to stave off calls for reform, crush dissent, and continue its current policies than to deal with the social and political ramifications of sweeping reform. Yet while Shia protests and dissent are not currently an imminent threat to the Saudi government, their persistence and increasingly violent nature show that the status quo cannot continue. Ignoring long-standing grievances is only aggravating the very situation the regime would like to diffuse.

Shia youth represent the future of anti-government opposition in Saudi Arabia and should therefore be of enormous concern for the Saudi government. Frustrated and disillusioned with the failed moderate approach of past reformers, the younger generation has proven to be increasingly willing to take to the streets in aggressive, violent protests. The government’s attempts to deal with the opposition through security crackdowns, censorship, and arrests have only intensified resentment and galvanized people to protest. For the endemically underemployed and underprivileged youth, facing police lines and arrest may be preferable to living under present circumstances. Unless they see tangible improvements in their living conditions, this unrest is likely to continue indefinitely. As protests over Nimr al-Nimr’s sentencing continue to break out and deepen the tensions between the Shia and the government, the perceptions, attitudes, and grievances of Saudi Arabia’s Shia youth are a serious crisis in the making. The only long-term solution is substantial and comprehensive reform that counterbalances the inequities of inherent discrimination.

Works Cited and Notes

[i] Estimates of Saudi Arabia’s Shia population range between 10 and 25 percent of the population. Michael Izady, “Persian Gulf Region: Religious Composition,” Columbia University, gulf2000.columbia.edu/images/maps/GulfReligionGeneral_lg.png (accessed October 4, 2014). For the lower-range estimate, see also: Toby Matthiesen, “Saudi Arabia’s Shiite Problem,” Foreign Policy, http://mideastafrica.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/03/07/saudi_arabia_s_shiite_problem?wp_login_redirect=0 (accessed October 4, 2014).

[ii] Ahmad K. Majidyar, “Saudi Arabia’s forgotten Shiite Spring,” American Enterprise Institute, http://www.aei.org/outlook/foreign-and-defense-policy/regional/middle-east-and-north-africa/saudi-arabias-forgotten-shiite-spring/ (accessed October 3, 2014).

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] For age demographics, see: Caryle Murphey, “Saudi Arabia’s Youth and the Kingdom’s Future,” Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Middle East Program (2011): 3. http://issuu.com/ecspwwc/docs/saudi_arabia_s_youth_and_the_kingdom_s_future_fina/1?e=0 (accessed October 3, 2014). A deeper analysis of internet use by Saudi youths can be found in: Nadav Samin, “Dynamics of Internet Use: Saudi Youth, Religious Minorities and Tribal Communities,” Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication 1 (2008): 197-215.

[v] Frederic Wehrey, “The Forgotten Uprising in Eastern Saudi Arabia,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, http://carnegieendowment.org/2013/06/14/forgotten-uprising-in-eastern-saudi-arabia# (accessed October 4,, 2014).

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid. See also: Ahmad K. Majidyar, “Saudi Arabia’s forgotten Shiite Spring.”

[ix] Ahmad K. Majidyar, “Saudi Arabia’s forgotten Shiite Spring.”

[x] U.S. Department of State, 2012 Report on International Religious Freedom – Saudi Arabia.

[xi] Frederic Wehrey, “The Forgotten Uprising in Eastern Saudi Arabia.”

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Ahmad K. Majidyar, “Saudi Arabia’s forgotten Shiite Spring.”

[xiv] U.S. Department of State, 2012 Report on International Religious Freedom – Saudi Arabia.

[xv] Frederic Wehrey, “The Forgotten Uprising in Eastern Saudi Arabia.”

[xvi] Simon Henderson, “Prospects for Saudi democratization,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, https://jime.ieej.or.jp/htm/english/2007/0330.htm (accessed October 5, 2014).

[xvii] Ahmad K. Majidyar, “Saudi Arabia’s forgotten Shiite Spring”

[xviii] Frederic Wehrey, “The Forgotten Uprising in Eastern Saudi Arabia.”

[xix] David Commins, The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia (I.B. Tauris: 2009)

[xx] Frederic Wehrey, “The Forgotten Uprising in Eastern Saudi Arabia.”

[xxi] Ibid.

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] Ahmad K. Majidyar, “Saudi Arabia’s forgotten Shiite Spring.”

[xxiv] Ibid.

[xxv] Frederic Wehrey, “The Forgotten Uprising in Eastern Saudi Arabia.”

[xxvi] Ibid.

[xxvii] Ibid.

[xxviii] David Commins, The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia, 170-211.

[xxix] Frederic Wehrey, “The Forgotten Uprising in Eastern Saudi Arabia.”

[xxx] Ibid. For background context analyzing Iranian involvement in the protests, see also: Ahmad K. Majidyar, “Saudi Arabia’s forgotten Shiite Spring.”

[xxxi] Ibid.

[xxxii] Ahamd K. Majidyar, “Saudi Arabia’s forgotten Shiite Spring.”

[xxxiii] Vali Nasr, The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future (W. W. Norton & Company, 2007): 236.

[xxxiv] Fouad Ibrahim, The Shi’is of Saudi Arabia (London: Saqi Books, 2006), 140-177.

[xxxv] Frederic Wehrey, “The Forgotten Uprising in Eastern Saudi Arabia.” For a broader analysis of the Islahiyyin period, see also: Frederic Wehrey, Sectarian Politics in the Gulf: From the Iraq War to the Arab Uprisings (Columbia University Press, 2013).

[xxxvi] Ibid.

[xxxvii] Christopher Wilcke, Denied Dignity: Systematic Discrimination and Hostility Toward Saudi Shia Citizens (Human Rights Watch, 2009): 1-2. See also: Frederic Wehrey, “The Forgotten Uprising in Eastern Saudi Arabia.”

[xxxviii] Frederic Wehrey, “The Forgotten Uprising in Eastern Saudi Arabia.”

[xxxix] Ibid.

[xl] Ahamad K. Majidyar, “Saudi Arabia’s forgotten Shiite Spring.”

[xli] Frederic Wehrey, “The Forgotten Uprising in Eastern Saudi Arabia.”

[xlii] Ibid.

[xliii] Madawi Al-Rasheed, “No Saudi Spring,” Boston Review, http://www.bostonreview.net/madawi-al-rasheed-arab-spring-saudi-arabia (accessed October 6, 2014).

[xliv] Ibid.

[xlv] Frederic Wehrey, “The Forgotten Uprising in Eastern Saudi Arabia.”

[xlvi] Ibid.

[xlvii] Ibid.

[xlviii] Ibid.

[xlix] Madawi Al-Rasheed, “No Saudi Spring.”

[l] Frederic Wehrey, “The Forgotten Uprising in Eastern Saudi Arabia.”

[li] Ibid.

[lii] “Saudi: Sheikh Nimr’s Crucified Fate,” Al-Akhbar English, http://english.al-akhbar.com/node/15395 (accessed October 7, 2014).

[liii] “Saudis demand release of Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr,” PressTV, http://www.presstv.com/detail/2014/08/24/376410/saudis-call-for-shia-clerics-release/ (accessed October 7, 2014).

[liv] Aya Batrawy, “Verdict postponed on Saudi Shiite cleric,” Associated Press, http://bigstory.ap.org/article/verdict-postponed-saudi-shiite-cleric (accessed October 7, 2014).

[lv] Aya Batrawy, “Saudi Arabia Just Sentenced A Prominent Shia Scholar to Death,” Business Insider, http://www.businessinsider.com/saudi-arabia-al-nimr-death-sentence-2014-10 (accessed October 16, 2014).

[lvi] “Saudi Arabia sentences Sheikh Nimr to death,” Al-Akhbar English, http://english.al-akhbar.com/content/saudi-arabia-sentences-sheikh-nimr-death (accessed October 17, 2014).

[lvii] Leila Fadel, “Saudi Cleric’s Death Sentence Focuses Shia Anger on Ruling Family,” NPR, http://www.npr.org/2014/10/18/357108117/saudi-clerics-death-sentence-focuses-shia-anger-on-ruling-family (accessed October 18, 2014).

[lviii] Frederic Wehrey, “Shia Days of Rage,” Foreign Affairs, http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/138498/frederic-wehrey/shia-days-of-rage (accessed October 17, 2014).

[lix] Frederic Wehrey, “The Forgotten Uprising in Eastern Saudi Arabia.”

[lx] Ibid.

[lxi] Ibid.

[lxii] Ibid.

[lxiii] Frederic Wehrey, “Shia Days of Rage.”

[lxiv] “Saudi Arabia,” Freedom House, http://www.freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-press/2013/saudi-arabia#.VELiqxavEXU (accessed October 16, 2014).

[lxv] For an analysis of the use of ‘Twitter’ in the 2011 ‘Arab Spring,’ see: Catherine O’Donnell, “New study quantifies use of social media in Arab Spring,” University of Washington, http://www.washington.edu/news/2011/09/12/new-study-quantifies-use-of-social-media-in-arab-spring/ (accessed October 17, 2014). For an analysis of the use of social media in the 2014 Hong Kong protests, which demonstrates how activists can circumvent online censorship, see also: Emily Parker, “Social Media and the Hong Kong Protests,” The New Yorker, http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/social-media-hong-kong-protests (accessed October 17, 2014).

[lxvi] Frederic Wehrey, “The Forgotten Uprising in Eastern Saudi Arabia.”

[lxvii] “The Arrest Of A Shiite Cleric Could Be The Spark That Ignites Saudi Arabia,” Business Insider, http://www.businessinsider.com/saudi-arabia-arrest-turmoil-cleric-2011-3 (accessed October 17, 2014).

[lxviii] Frederic Wehrey, “The Forogtten Uprising in Eastern Saudi Arabia.” The full report, “ʿAbd al-Rahman Muhammad ʿAmr al-ʿAqil, “Ahdath al-ʿAwamiya wa al-Qatif,” (The Events of al-Awamiya and al-Qatif), can be found at http://t.co/wltovJtn

[lxix] Ibid.

[lxx] Ibid.

[lxxi] Ibid.

What Motivates Chinese Foreign Policy?

Foreign policy decisions are driven by a number of motivating factors, both domestic and external. For policymakers in the People’s Republic of China, however, domestic concerns have primacy when developing foreign policy. In order to stave off popular dissent about the Communist Party’s monopolization of political power, Chinese leaders realize they must continue to produce positive economic results. This is reflected in China’s foreign policy through its attempts to build deeper economic relationships and maintain a stable, cooperative international environment. They also use China’s rise to hegemony as a narrative to galvanize popular support. Additionally, China’s foreign policy principles of non-interference and respect for others’ territorial integrity are motivated by its desire to have other countries ignore or at least tolerate its own human rights abuses and territorial occupations.

For many in China, it doesn’t matter that their country is a single-party socialist state with limited levels of political participation and discourse. What matters is that they continue seeing economic growth which brings tangible benefit to their daily lives. China’s rapid and unparalleled economic growth has brought enormous improvements in its citizens standards of living. Indeed, the Communist Party has managed to propel millions of its citizens out of poverty and into the middle class. Popular support is now built around the government’s ability to produce results. China’s leadership recognizes this, and likely understands the ramifications of economic stagnation. Its citizens apathy towards their political marginalization is a result of economic prosperity, but should that prosperity end, it is likely that the apathy will as well. In order to stave off calls for political reform and popular dissent, Chinese policymakers turn to whatever option is available to keep China’s economy growing.

With this in mind, China’s foreign policy has been focused on developing deeper economic and bilateral relations with other countries and ensuring the international environment remains stable and conducive to further Chinese growth. Though China has become increasingly assertive and occasionally aggressive in its foreign policy maneuverings, it still shies away from conflicts or confrontations which might destabilize its economic relationships. It’s “non-judgement” policy is not just a manifestation of its rhetorical principles of “peaceful coexistence,” it is an economic calculation. For the Chinese, it matters not whether a country is a dictatorship or a democracy, so long as that country is willing to trade and help further develop China’s economy.

Chinese policymakers also recognize that the days of using anti-imperialist rhetoric or a cult of personality to mobilize the masses and galvanize support for the regime are ending. Instead, they have increasingly looked towards China’s rise to a position of hegemony and dominance as a tool to win popular support. As it begins to play a much more dominant regional and global role, China can finally be seen as emerging out of its era of “national humiliation,” an era which devastated the Chinese psyche. China’s communist leaders legitimize and justify their continued rule by stirring up nationalist sentiments and pointing out that it was they who brought China out of the humiliation. China’s assertive foreign policy and quest for hegemony is thus yet another means to deflect criticism about the nature its regime.

Two parts of China’s principles of “peaceful coexistence” are non-interference in the sovereign affairs of other countries and respect for their territorial integrity. Far from being just rhetorical tools to lessen other countries’ suspicions of China’s rise, these principles are motivated heavily by internal concerns. China has its own record of human rights abuses and violations, and is known to heavy-handedly quash dissent. It also occupies and lays claim to territories with separatist groups and sentiments, such as Tibet and Xinjiang. China has therefore made the foreign policy promise of playing nice and keeping its hands out of other countries’ affairs, but in return expects other countries to do the same towards it. The Chinese regime would be all the more happy, and secure, if its issues in separatist regions and human rights abuses went unnoticed or un-criticized.

China’s “Place in the Sun”

In a speech before the Reichstag in 1897, German Foreign Minister Bernhard von Bülow declared that the Germans “do not want to put anyone in our shadow, but we also demand our place in the sun.” This quote can be applied to China’s foreign policy with varying degrees of accuracy. China’s assertive and more aggressive contemporary foreign policy shows that it is pursuing regional hegemony. China’s rise on the world stage following a period of “national humiliation” is thus a return to its “place in the sun,” one which it had possessed for much of its long and rich history. China disclaims desires to dominate or interfere in other states’ affairs, showing that, at least rhetorically, it does not want to “put anyone in its shadow.” Of course, in reality, China’s rise entails doing exactly that.

The Chinese civilization is one of the oldest in the world. With a rich, diverse history and culture, the Chinese rightfully have much about which they can be proud. For most of its history, China had enjoyed its “place in the sun.” Indeed, the Chinese thought that they were the center of the world. Yet the era of European imperialism dealt a striking blow to the Chinese state and psyche. Forced to capitulate to unfair trade deals, forced to relinquish significant amounts of sovereignty to foreign powers, and split apart into various factions of warlords, China was experiencing a period of “national humiliation.” It has only been in the more recent past that China has cast off foreign powers and begun to reassert itself on the world stage. As it does so, the Chinese frame their rise as “overcoming” that humiliation and reestablishing their rightful “place in the sun.” They see that “place in the sun” as being the hegemon of the Asia-Pacific region, and China’s more assertive contemporary foreign policy, marked by military saber-rattling and the building of deeper regional ties, would appear as though its pursuant of that hegemony.

At least rhetorically, China pursues a foreign policy of non-interference in other states’ sovereign affairs. Indeed, two of China’s “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence” are non-interference in others’ affairs and respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty. In this way, China hopes to reassure its neighbors and other countries that its rise will not “put them in its shadow.” This is largely borne out of recognition that China needs a stable, peaceful, cooperative international environment to continue to rise. China’s growing hegemony is built around its rapid economic development; in this deeply interconnected region, economic growth would be greatly threatened and would perhaps stagnate if conflict broke out. Chinese policymakers understand that “putting others in its shadow” would cause them to balance or “hedge” against China by seeking new security and economic arrangements. As such, the most strategically beneficial option is to reassure neighbors that they have nothing to fear in China, and this is indeed the diplomatic strategy China is currently pursuing.

Of course, in reality China’s rise does entail “putting others in its shadow.” As China’s military and economic strength develops, it is increasingly pursuing policies that seek to assert hegemony in regional institutions and balances of power. Chinese policymakers, it seems, have begun to expect smaller states to defer to its wishes. The modernization and expansion of its military and its nuclear arsenal force other states to tread carefully when dealing with points of contention with China. Territorial disputes and military saber-rattling, especially with Japan, demonstrate that China is willing to disregard its principles of respect for territorial sovereignty and peaceful coexistence. Furthermore, it hopes to displace the United States as the regional leader. China’s rise corresponds with a more aggressive and assertive foreign policy. Its “shadow” is looming ever wider.

The irony of von Bülow’s statement was that he was hoping for Germany to build a stronger navy and its own colonial, imperial empire. The statement is a contradiction, its two parts mutually exclusive. Regions are shaped and defined by their hegemons, and lesser powers in those regions either defer to or balance against that hegemon. Such is the nature of the international system and environment we have created. No country can find its rightful “place in the sun” without “casting a shadow” over others. China’s foreign policy can accordingly be seen as a delicate balance between the two, one that ensures enough stability to allow China’s unparalleled growth to continue while also asserting China’s newfound dominance.