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Category: International Affairs Page 2 of 11

Turkey’s Islamic State Dilemma

Turkey has an Islamic State dilemma and, over the course of the past week, it has been getting worse. On Monday, July 20th, a suicide bomber blew himself up during a rally of the Socialist Party of the Oppressed Youth Wing in the southern Turkey town of Suruç, killing 32 and injuring hundreds others. The activists targeted were mainly university students who had been planning to travel to Syria to help rebuild the town of Kobane. The suicide bombing, one of the deadliest attacks in Turkey in recent years, has been attributed to the Islamic State. This attribution of responsibility is more significant than it may first appear: the usual reaction of Turkish officials to such attacks has been to blame them on agents of the Syrian government, however unlikely that might be. Indeed, prior to the latest bombing, three Turkish journalists had asked the local provincial governor if Islamic State militants had crossed from Syria into Turkey and had been promptly jailed for their pains. The Suruç bomber, a 20-year-old Turkish student, had reportedly had links to the militant organization, and the Islamic State had allegedly taken the decision to pursue more active operations in Turkey just days before the attack. Other than past unplanned clashes between Islamic State militants and Turkish soldiers and bombings thought to involve the Islamic State in Reyhanli in 2013 and Istanbul in 2015, this was the first attack by the Islamic State on Turkish soil.

The reaction to the suicide bombing has been strong, not only on social media but on the streets. In over 10 cities, protests have been held by thousands of people, with many chanting claims that the government has not been doing enough to combat the Islamic State. Still, the government was quick to condemn the attack and point the finger at the Islam State, and operations have recently been held in several cities across Turkey against Islamic State recruiters and would-be jihadists. Just a week ago, 30 people were detained. Yet some argued that such operations and the increasing military presence along the Syrian border could have led the Islamic State to change tactics and stage attacks within Turkish territory. Attacking university students hoping to help rebuild war-stricken Kobane may have been an attempt to create a further sense of terror inside Turkey.

Two Turkish police officers were then found shot dead on Wednesday in the town of Ceylanpinar, which is in the same province of Suruç and close to the Syrian border. The military wing of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) claimed responsibility for the attack, calling it a revenge operation against “policemen collaborating with Daesh.” The killing was an ominous development, coming two years into a supposed truce between the Kurdish militants and the Turkish security forces. The suicide bombing in Suruç has clearly aggravated tensions, leading to angry demonstrations and clashes between pro-Kurdish protestors and riot police. The murder of the police officers has been seen by some as revenge for the Suruç bombing, and will either way only add to the growing tension in southern Turkey.

Some opposition figures in Turkish politics say that the government’s main concern is not the Islamic State threat, but the threat posed by the increasingly powerful Kurdish presence in the north of Syria. Indeed, pro-government papers have recently come out with headlines suggesting that the Kurdish militias in Syria were more dangerous than the Islamic State. The long-standing conflict between the Turkish government and Turkey’s Kurdish population has confused the situation in northern Syria and southern Turkey, where some Kurdish militias combat the Islamic State but also oppose Turkey; Ankara has watched with much concern as Kurdish groups have come to control some 250 miles of the Syrian side of Turkey’s southern border. As such, the spill-over effect of the Islamic State’s attack in Suruç will surely only serve to aggravate the Kurdish-Turkish issue at a time when Turkey’s security situation is already increasingly under threat.

Meanwhile, on Thursday, gunfire from across the Turkish border with Syria killed a Turkish non-commissioned officer and wounded two sergeants in the southern Kilis province. According to official sources, a pickup truck carrying 10 heavily armed Islamic State fighters opened fire on Turkish troops stationed at a mountain border outpost. In response, Turkish forces responded by targeting positions across the border, killing at least one Islamic State militant and capturing another. In the meantime, security forces maintained fire on Islamic State positions in Azaz town in northwestern Syria, and armored vehicles were reportedly sent to the border region.

Clearly, the situation in southern Turkey is growing increasingly tense. Many fear that the attack in Suruç could be a turning point for Turkey, a sign that the Syrian war is spilling over the border. Of course, many others argue that it already has. In a move to lessen fears and increase border security, Turkey has announced plans to construct a major wall along its southern border. Few would doubt that the ability to move backwards and forwards across long Syrian-Turkish border has been crucial for the growth of Islamist movements in Syria since 2011. Thousands of the foreign volunteers who have flooded into Syria have almost all come from Turkey. Even those unable to speak Turkish or Arabic have had little difficulty in making their way across. Of course, Turkish leaders furiously deny this, saying it is impossible to police such a long border. At any rate, the modular wall will include reinforced wire, floodlights, and extra ditches, and will better secure at least 560 miles of border. Already, roughly half of Turkey’s 40,000 border guards are now deployed along the border with Syria. Meanwhile, President Obama told Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday that the United States would help “stem the flow of foreign fighters.”

Violence is spreading inexorably into Turkey. Yet, as some fear, targeting Islamic State militants could trigger further attacks within the country. Of course, not targeting them could fuel the opposition’s accusations of suspected links between the government and the Islamic State. Meanwhile, Turkey will continue to struggle with its Kurdish population, which has become even more hostile following the suicide bombing in Suruç. With the growing developments over the past week, it seems all too clear that Turkey’s government has found itself in a complicated dilemma.

China: A Global Power, In Space

Exploring the Use of the Chinese Space Program as a Tool to Establish China as a “Major Power”

China Space ProgramIntroduction

As the People’s Republic of China continues to develop its economic, military, and technological capabilities, and as China begins to assert itself more aggressively on the world stage, the Chinese leadership has sought to portray the country as being among the world’s major powers. It appears evident that achieving “great power” status is a fundamental goal for China’s fourth generation leadership, as doing so represents to the Chinese people the overcoming of China’s historical period of “national humiliation,” bolsters the Chinese Communist Party’s political legitimacy, and benefits China in its push for regional hegemony in the Asia-Pacific. China’s quest for global status, a major characteristic of the foreign policy and domestic rhetoric of the current Xi Jinping administration, can be seen reflected by the use of the rapidly developing Chinese space program as a tool to promote and enhance China’s standing at home and influence abroad. With a growing budget, growing ambitions, increasingly advanced capabilities, and through the formation of significant organizational linkages with the Chinese government, it is clear that China’s space program enjoys support from the main political organs of the Chinese state – the PLA, the CCP, and the Civil Service – and is becoming a prominent feature of China’s rise. Underlying this support is the belief that maintaining an active space program is a symbol of great power status and brings with it the economic, technological, cultural, and geopolitical benefits which great powers enjoy. This paper analyzes the domestic and international significance of China’s space program along with the implications of its current capabilities and future plans. By exploring the connections between the effects of China’s space program and the Chinese leadership’s broader strategic and rhetorical goals, the use of the program as an effective tool for establishing China as a global power is explained. Understanding these connections, as well as the overall significance of China’s space program, is vital for a nuanced understanding of China’s rise as a major international actor and reveals the vision which Chinese leaders have for the country’s status as a global power in the coming decades.

A History of the Chinese Space Program

Although the pace of China’s space program’s development has quickened considerably over the past two decades, the program itself is among the oldest in the world. With an origin the mid-1950s, roughly concurrent with the beginnings of the American and Soviet programs, the Chinese space program has had a history reflective of the PRC’s evolution. Due to its military origins and the nature of Communist China during the Mao era, much of the early history of China’s space program remains shrouded in mystery, making it difficult to discern the relationship between the program’s designers, the PLA, and the political establishment; indeed, some analysts have called the Chinese program one of the “last secret space programs.” Nonetheless, the overall course of development can be tracked using what information is available.[i] Initially, Mao Zedong sponsored the program, seizing upon the political and military message sent by achieving space flight during the “space race” of the 1950s and 1960s. Driven by the influence and expertise of Dr. Tsien Hsue-shen, an American-educated rocket scientist, and technical assistance from the Soviet Union, the program had ambitious early goals, including plans for manned spaceflight.[ii] An emphasis was placed on the development of ballistic missiles, which were linked to the development of China’s nuclear arsenal and overall military aims. Due to its initially military character, the space program was placed under the supervision of the PLA.[iii] However, the cutting off of Soviet aid as a result of the Sino-Soviet split, the enormous disruptions caused by the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, and general technological underdevelopment delayed China’s entry into space. It was not until 1970 that China launched its first satellite, named “The East is Red 1,”[iv] using a modified intercontinental ballistic missile. Doing so, it became, after the United States, the Soviet Union, France, and Japan, the fifth country to place a satellite in orbit. Plans continued to be proposed for manned spaceflight through the 1960s, but the Chinese leadership, suffering from the consequences of political and economic upheaval, chose instead to limit development to new launch vehicles and space technologies. Although the government continued to float the idea of a manned program during the 1970s it lacked the economic wherewithal necessary to sustain such efforts, which never materialized. However, although the emphasis on the space program’s military application continued, the program began to explore the development and utilization of communications satellites and recoverable film satellites.[v] A number of military satellites, about which little is known, were also flown during the last years of the Mao era.[vi]

A “second phase” in the Chinese space program began with the death of Mao and the ascension of Deng Xiaoping to leadership in China. With Deng’s focus on economic growth and revitalization, the space program became linked to the national goals of economic and technological development. As such, there was a separation of the military and civilian spheres of space activity, with the efforts of the latter focused more explicitly on economic development.[vii] With the production of the upgraded “Long March 2” launch vehicle, the Chinese leadership decided to pursue the launching of communications satellites and expanding into the lucrative commercial launch market. 12 launch vehicle variants of the Long March 2 began development and multiple launch sites were built across China.[viii] In 1984, the first Chinese communication satellite, the “East is Red 2,” was placed into orbit.[ix] In 1985, China began conducting commercial launches. China conducted 18 commercial launches between 1985 and 2000, usually at prices undercutting American and European competition. However, the 1996 crash of a rocket carrying a US-built communications satellite, coupled with American concerns over improper technology transfers, led to a general embargo of Chinese commercial launches.[x]

Some scholars point to Ronald Reagan’s 1983 speech announcing the Strategic Defense initiative as providing the impetus for the resurrection of China’s manned space program. The Chinese leadership, searching for a way to respond to the United States’ renewed space efforts, decided again to explore the possibility for manned missions.[xi] Throughout the 1980s, through the outline of “Plan 863,” which sought to identify fields where China could narrow the development gap with more advanced nations, China moved toward the development of technologies necessary to sustain such a program.[xii] In 1992, the CCP Standing Committee gave the go-ahead for “Project 921,” which would eventually become China’s manned program. Technology transfer between China and Russia, in addition to agreements involving the training of astronauts and experts, led to the development of the Shenzhou “Divine Craft” spacecraft, which closely resembled the Russian “Soyuz” spacecraft. Meanwhile, new launch facilities and heavy-launch variants of the Long March rocket were developed to support the spacecraft.[xiii] Starting in 1999, the Shenzhou spacecraft began a series of unmanned launches testing and certifying various systems.[xiv] Finally, in October 15, 2003, Shenzhou 5, carrying Lieutenant Colonel Yang Liwei, was launched, making China the third country to launch a human into space.

Shenzhou 6, the second manned Chinese mission, was launched in 2005, and Shenzhou 7, launched in 2008, carried the first three-person crew and conducted the first Chinese extravehicular activity. Meanwhile, plans were developed for lunar operations throughout the early 2000s. By 2004, the State Council and CCP Central Committee had directed the formation of leading small group for lunar exploration, placing it outside the purview of the PLA, and in 2007 Chang’e 1, a lunar orbiter, was placed into orbit around the moon, where it remained for approximately 1 year. In 2010, Chang’e 2, a second lunar orbiter with advanced imaging and mapping capabilities, was launched.[xv] An anti-satellite missile test conducted in 2007, which intercepted and destroyed a defunct Chinese weather satellite in low Earth orbit, demonstrated the PLA’s evolving military application of space technologies.[xvi] As part of China’s multiphase plan to construct a major space station by 2020, begun in the late 2000s, the experimental space station Tiangong 1, known as “Heavenly Palace,” was launched in 2011.[xvii] Shenzhou 9, launched in 2012 carrying China’s first female astronaut, conducted the first docking with Tiangong 1, and Shenzhou 10, China’s most recent manned mission launched in 2013, spent a number of days carrying out experiments while docked with Tiangong 1. Yunghuo 1, a Chinese Mars exploration probe, sought to demonstrate China’s capacity for interplanetary space activity, and would’ve made China the first Asia-Pacific power to visit Mars. Launched in 2011 attached to a Russian probe, the mission failed when the probe failed in Earth orbit.[xviii] However, Chang’e 3, a lunar lander launched in late 2013, made China’s first successful lunar landing. It deployed and operated a rover, named Yutu, on the lunar surface for a month.[xix] In addition to the Chinese space program’s manned and lunar efforts, it has developed and deployed a range of satellite during the 2000s and 2010s. Indeed, the bulk of China’s current, high-tech surveillance, imaging, meteorological, oceanographic, and navigation satellites have been launched within the last two decades.[xx]

As can be seen by its history, the Chinese space program has reflected the evolution and growth of the modern Chinese state, and has long served as a tool to advance its leadership’s rhetorical and strategic goals. As early as the 1950s, Mao sought to use the program to assert Chinese technological and strategic superiority and present a challenge to the growth of American hegemony in space. Although the turmoil of the Mao era prevented the realization of many of the programs lofty initial goals, the application of developed launch vehicles as ballistic and intercontinental weapons platforms nonetheless advanced China’s strategic capabilities and goals. During the Deng era, the expansion of the space program toward economic pursuits reflected the Chinese leadership’s emphasis on economic growth and development. Furthermore, in a number of speeches, including a key speech in 1978, Deng emphasized the space program’s role in achieving wider social and economic goals in China. The development theme and motivation attached to China’s space program has since connected to the Communist party’s various domestic development platforms, such as the “Four Modernizations” campaign and Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream”. [xxi] With China’s meteoric economic growth through the 1990s and into the modern day, the space program has undergone equally significant development. Space policy “White Papers” released by the Chinese government through the 2000s emphasized the role of the space program in “upholding the principle of independence, self-reliance, and self-renovation” and laid out its use in “revitalizing the country with science and education and that of sustainable development,” further reinforcing the program’s connection to the leadership’s development rhetoric.[xxii] The contemporary connections between the Chinese space program and the Chinese leadership’s goals and rhetoric will be explored later in this paper. However, to better understand these connections, the current capabilities of the future plans must be described in order to recognize the Chinese leadership’s goals and vision for the program.

Current Capabilities and Future Plans

With a long history of development and a period of rapid expansion over the past two decades, China’s capabilities in outer space are currently sophisticated, extend into the military and civilian spheres, and encompass both manned and unmanned spaceflight. The centerpiece of China’s space program is the Shenzhou spacecraft, which enables China the ability for manned flight. Over the course of 5 manned missions, China has demonstrated its ability to sustain complex, long-duration human spaceflight and conduct scientific experiments with the Shenzhou craft. “Heavenly Palace 1,” China’s first space station, has, through a series of manned and unmanned visits by the Shenzhou spacecraft, proven that China can conduct in-orbit docking and space station experiments, paving the way for future larger, manned stations. China’s space transportation infrastructure includes a reliable family of launch systems which deploy payloads into space for military, civilian, and commercial users. Four main variants of the Long March rocket can put payloads into varying altitudes and orbital inclinations, and numerous sub-variants can accommodate different types of payloads. The LM-2F, China’s most powerful launch vehicle to date, can launch more than 8,000 kilograms into Earth orbit. China also currently has a number of space operations centers, including satellite launch centers at Jiuquan, Taiyuan, and Xichang, and a space launch center on Hainan Island which serves as a base for payloads associated with the manned space program. A number of space academies and science centers located across China assist with technological research, development, and training.[xxiii]

Through the launch of Chang’e 1, 2, and 3, China has shown its capacity for lunar orbit, landing, and operations. Meanwhile, China’s current satellite fleet serves a number of uses and applications. Electro-optical imaging satellites enable high-resolution imaging and surveillance of the Earth, and over 13 remote sensing satellites with civilian and military imaging capabilities launched since 2006. Synthetic aperture radar satellites and electronic reconnaissance satellites enable the tracking and imaging of ground and maritime targets, and can serve dual civilian and military purposes as a disaster-tracking platform and as a surveillance platform. A growing fleet of oceanographic satellites support disaster warning, recovery, and response efforts, and help enable the exploitation of maritime resources and fishing. Meteorological satellites provide valuable weather information for civilian and scientific consumption and lend aid to military operations and planning. Meanwhile, a limited but growing network of data relay satellites have expanded the scope of China’s communications satellite program Finally, the development of a fleet of experimental microsatellites have enabled China to augment its existing space assets with cheaper, smaller satellites. Microsatellites have been viewed as a platform for a wide range of technologies, including observation, communications, and military counterspace operations. [xxiv]

As security analysts in the West routinely point out, China’s space program also supports PLA aims. The dual-use of much of China’s space infrastructure for civilian and military application blends the division between distinctly civilian space assets and military space assets.[xxv] China’s current space assets boost the PLA’s capacity in numerous ways. Analysis of the Shenzhou program has led to conclusions that that they incorporated military elements, with the spacecraft carrying various imaging and tracking equipment for military surveillance.[xxvi] Launch platforms such as the Long March rockets, but also including an array of intercontinental ballistic missiles, provide the PLA with global striking capabilities. Navigation, observation, and communications satellites augment the PLA’s campaign planning and operations, and help refine the targeting capability of its missile-based weapons. Tracking satellites allow for the monitoring of foreign space assets and provide an early warning against space debris, which could pose potential problems for the Chinese space fleet in the event of space-based warfare. A network of ballistic missile warning satellites provide further early warning against the launch of foreign ballistic missiles, and enable precise targeting for anti-missile weapons platforms. Finally, space-borne and ground-launched anti-satellite missiles, such as the one tested in 2007, provide the PLA an offensive capability against foreign country’s space assets.[xxvii]

Among the future plans for China’s civilian space program are an expanded lunar program, the construction of a large-scale space station, the development of more launch vehicles, and the development of more advanced satellite technology. By 2020, China hopes to conduct a series of lunar landings under the Chang’e program, including sample-return missions bringing back lunar soil.[xxviii] Some analysts see the expansion of this program as the precursor for large-scale, manned lunar missions in the 2020s or 2030s.[xxix] With the projected 2015 launch of Tiangong 2 and late 2010s launch of the larger Taigong-3, China will have the capacity for expanding testing of new technologies for large space stations and long-term living conditions for astronauts. The three Tiangong modules serve as a precursor to a fully functioning, continuously-manned, large-scale space station planned for construction by the end of the decade. Significantly, the construction of this space station is planned to occur concurrently with the decommissioning of the American-led International Space Station. Some see the this large-scale space station as a base of support for the Chinese lunar program, while others argue that it supports the leadership’s goals of boosting national pride and national standing.[xxx] China has also committed to the development of a series of new, upgraded launch vehicles, including the planned Long March 5, 6, and 7 rockets. The Long March 5 is planned to be a heavy-lift launcher capable of carrying heavy payloads into high Earth orbit. Additionally, a number of Chinese tracking, telemetry, and control centers are scheduled to be upgraded, allowing for the better tracking of an increased number of space assets. Finally, as laid out by recent “White Papers” published by the Chinese government, plans are in place to significantly increase China’s fleet of Earth observation satellites while upgrading their capabilities. The constellation of China’s navigation and communications satellites are expected to be upgraded as well, enabling global rather than regional reach.[xxxi]

Again, the future expansion of China’s space program will serve a dual purpose for PLA goals. While information about the PLA’s future plans for space technology is limited, the expansion of its capabilities can be extrapolated from the program’s overall trajectory. Through the expansion and upgrading of China’s space-based surveillance network to include new, high-resolution electro-optical and synthetic aperture radar systems, the PLA will be able to image and track enemy targets at an increased scale and global level. Furthermore, more sophisticated tracking satellites will enhance the targeting ability of the PLA’s missile fleet. This fleet will further be augmented by the development of more, larger-scale launch vehicles, which will be able to deliver weapon payloads with a greater distance. Chinese space technology journals have suggested the development of stealth and camouflage measures for China’s military satellites, which would provide them with effective deterrents and counter-measures against enemy counter-space activity.[xxxii] The development of a microsatellite fleet, meanwhile, will mitigate adversaries’ abilities to effectively destroy China’s space capabilities. Ultimately, these elements fall within China’s military strategy for outer space, which has been garnered from recurring themes in Chinese writings on military space operations. A consensus has developed on achieving “space dominance,” which involves securing information, offensive, and defense superiority in outer space. Maintaining a fleet of observation, warning, and communications satellites allows for uninterrupted operation of information collection, while developing offensive space weapons such as anti-satellite missiles and defensive space measures such as stealth capabilities ensures the survival of China’s space assets and the denial of enemy assets. As can be seen through the plans in place for China’s expanding space program, the PLA is taking active steps towards the realization of this outer space dominance.[xxxiii]

The Chinese space program’s current capabilities in both the civil and military spheres provide China with a diverse array of benefits, and China’s future plans for outer space look to only increase the scope and scale of the space program’s impact. Because of the dual-use application of China’s space technology for military and civil purposes, the expansion of China’s space program will likely continue the growth of China’s domestic and military capabilities. The foreign and domestic implications of China’s space capabilities will be explored later in this paper, but first the organizational structure of the Chinese space program, along with its linkages with the Chinese political establishment and leadership, must be analyzed. By doing so, the Chinese leadership’s support for the space program’s current capabilities and expansion as well as the effects of the program’s organization and decision-making structure on the current and future use of space assets may be revealed.

The Chinese Space Program’s Organization and Political Linkages

Without a structured, centralized agency akin to the United States’ NASA or Russia’s Roscosmos, the Chinese space program’s organization and structure is quite dissimilar to the programs of the West. Rather, with its linkages with the PLA and numerous state-owned corporations, the Chinese space program has taken on a distinctly Chinese structure. During the Mao and Deng eras, the space program fell largely under the leadership of the PLA, although some parts were nominally placed under civilian control; the Commission on Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defense was the main civilian agency involved with China’s space program. Although numerous scientists working on and advocating for China’s commercial launch program and communications satellites came from the civilian sphere, the PLA maintained active control of the program.[xxxiv] In 1991, the State Council formed the Space Leading Group and, in 1993, the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA), also under the State Council and responsible to the Premier of China, was formed and given the responsibility of administering China’s civilian space program. In 2000, the China Aerospace Corporation (CASC), a state-owned enterprise responsible for the development of China’s space hardware, software, and R&D, was restructured into two entities, the China Aerospace Machinery and Electronics Corporation (CAMEC) and the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASTC). However, the majority of space-related industrial activity is conducted within the CASTC’s organization. Three key organizations under the CASTC handle the majority of space projects – the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST) oversees institutes and facilities related to the development and production of satellites, the China Academy of Launch Technology (CALT) conducts the development of launch vehicles and missiles. The Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology (SAST), which also falls under the CASTC, is also responsible for the development of launch vehicles and satellites. Over 130 other organizations with direct impact on spaceflight fall within the structure of the CASC, as well. Primary among them is the China Great Wall Industry Corporation (CGWIC), which contracts and handles China’s commercial launch and space industry.[xxxv]

The CCP Central Committee, Central Military Commission, and State Council also rely upon the PLA’s General Armaments Department (GAD) for the execution of civil and military space acquisition policies. The GAD is responsible for establishing space defense policies, managing China’s space program, developing technical solutions for operational requirements, and overseeing space research and development. A number of departments within the GAD take on various space-related responsibilities. The S&T Committee consists of working groups that advises the Central Military Commission and civilian leaders on technology acquisition planning and space operations policy. Further working groups work with national leaders on resource allocation and determine which technological hurdles and bottlenecks demand the most attention. At least 10 second level departments within the GAD also support space operations, space asset modernization, and space planning. The Aerospace Equipment Bureau is responsible for charting the PLA’s space communications and surveillance infrastructure. The Electronic and Information Infrastructure Department establishes general research and development strategies and priorities. The Comprehensive Planning Department is responsible for overall space-modernization planning. Furthermore, the GAD Headquarters Department functions as an operational command overseeing space launch, tracking, and control, and oversees China’s various space tracking centers and facilities. Finally, the GAD works closely with China’s space academies and corporations in order to coordinate research and development strategies.[xxxvi]

The diffuse organization of the Chinese space program, along with limited information regarding its decision-making hierarchy, makes it difficult to discern who is really “in control” of the program. The PLA, the civil government, and state corporations all play roles in the development of the program’s military and civil aspects, while the dual-use application of much of China’s civil space assets for military purposes blends the distinction between civilian and military planning and execution. As such, the sources of China’s overall space strategy are not easily identified. Information on the ratios of funding the program receives from the military and from the civilian government is limited, thereby preventing a breakdown and analysis of the program’s emphasized focus. Furthermore, a lack of transparency into the space program’s management system limits analysts’ ability to predict the program’s likely response to a variety of future circumstances. China’s State Council has issued “White Papers” outlining the Chinese space program’s overall policy approach while pledging to make space decisions in a coordinated manner through overall planning. The Communist Party’s Central Committee has also called upon the State Council to enhance its role in policy guidance of space development.[xxxvii] This, combined with the rapid growth of China’s lunar program, overseen by the State Council, has suggested to some an increasing level of civilian control over space program decisions.[xxxviii] However, some scholars argue that the PLA continues to play a large role in the civilian space program, and maintains overall control of the space program’s general direction. They point to the dual-use of China’s civil space technologies for military purposes as indicative of the PLA’s influence. It is suggested that the PLA maintains de facto control over civilian programs in order to ensure their military applicability, despite the de jure authority exercised by the space program’s civilian organs. Additionally, the security benefits of the space program’s military sphere are enough to keep them a priority regardless of economic downturn or space disaster, reinforcing the PLA’s control over funding and decision making. It is argued that, should conflict break out with other space powers such as the United States, the space program’s civilian programs will be placed on the backburner while the PLA ramps up its militarization campaign.[xxxix] Other scholars downplay the PLA’s influence over the space program, stating that the importance of the civil program to the Chinese leadership’s broad domestic, international, and rhetorical strategies is equal to the importance of the military program. Accordingly, they argue that the civilian leadership will continue to decide and support the direction of China’s space program’s non-security related development.[xl]

The difficulties in determining who maintains overall control of the Chinese space program poses problems for Western security and policy analysts, yet a crucial fact is clear – regardless of PLA or civilian control over the program, its development has been deemed important by the Chinese leadership. The cost of China’s manned program has exceeded $2.4 billion, which the CNSA argues is the single most expensive project undertaken by the PRC[xli]. As the expenditure of such sums of money suggests that China’s leaders are confident in the program, it should be expected that the expansion of China’s military space capabilities, its manned exploration efforts, and its fleet of satellites should continue. As the Chinese space program has significant linkages with the main organs of the Chinese state, its rapid growth and expanding capabilities are reflective of an overall support for the program. Indeed, over the past decades, the Chinese leadership’s main figures have actively participated in and demonstrated their enthusiastic support for the program. Chinese President Jiang Zemin is credited with choosing the name for the Shenzhou spacecraft, and his own calligraphy was written on the vehicle during its first orbit around the Earth in 1999. President Hu Jintao watched the launch of Shenzhou 6 in 2005 from its control center in Beijing, while Premier Wen Jaibao called the flight a “glorious and sacred mission.” In 2007, Wen Jaibao argued that the Chang’e lunar mission was of “deep historical significance for raising our international standing and strengthening the force of our ethnic solidarity.” Following Shenzhou 9’s docking with Tiangong 1 in 2012, Hu sent a congratulatory message to China’s space scientists and astronaut crew and later, accompanied by senior party leaders such as Xi Jinping, held a televised phone conversation with the crew. Upon Shenzhou 9’s return to Earth, Wen Jaibao and other senior leaders such as He Guoqiang and Zhou Yongkang watched the landing live. Furthermore, China’s astronauts frequently become ambassadors for the program and the government following their return. The crew of Shenzhou 9 paid a state-sponsored visit to Hong Kong and Macao, two territories recently reincorporated into the PRC, following their successful return and were awarded medals by the CCP’s Central Committee, the State Council, and the Central Military Commission in an October 2012 ceremony. Finally, the Chinese state media frequently mentions the space program’s achievements, highlighting notable “firsts” accomplished by Chinese missions and reinforcing the connections between China’s space program and the government’s messages of technological, economic, and cultural growth.[xlii]

It is thus evident that China’s space program enjoys enthusiastic support from China’s highest leadership and is promoted through the government’s rhetoric and state media. Underlying this support is the perceived benefit that the space program brings domestically and internationally. With a wide range of applications in the civilian and military spheres, the Chinese space program has a significant impact on China domestically and abroad. The Chinese government has sought to develop policies for the program which support its overall strategy and have used the program as a propaganda tool to enhance its message and rhetoric. However, to understand how the Chinese leadership sees and uses the space program as an effective tool for advancing its goals, the domestic and international impact of the program should first be analyzed.

Domestic Significance

The domestic significance of China’s space program is multifold, as it brings both tangible benefits to the Chinese state and people and also reinforces and reflects the Chinese leadership’s political and rhetorical message. China’s space program begets economic growth and development, supports China’s focus on education, science, and technology, and is a source of considerable national pride and unity. The economic and development benefits brought about by China’s space program fit squarely into the government’s campaigns for economic development and prosperity.[xliii] The space program itself employs hundreds of thousands of employees, and the highly-technical and complex nature of the program means that many of the jobs are necessarily high-skill and high-paying. As a result of the linkages between the space program’s main state corporations and the broader Chinese economy, the economic growth brought about through production of spacecraft and associated technology reverberates through China’s industrial sector. The expansion of China’s fleet of communications and navigation satellites have provided for the Chinese people greater access to cell phone, internet, radio, and television communications, which in turn help stimulate the broader Chinese economy. Imaging satellites help provide disaster warning and support disaster relief, saving China considerable amounts of money of relief efforts. Furthermore, these imaging satellites help enable the exploitation of maritime fishing grounds, maritime resources, fertile farming land, and ground-based natural resources, further benefitting the expansion of the Chinese economy.[xliv] These satellites additionally enable easier mapping needed to plan China’s continued urbanization and infrastructure growth. Scientific experiments in space involving technology applicable back on Earth, such as the breeding of crops in space and space medicine, similarly affect the daily lives of Chinese citizens in a positive fashion, as do the spin-off technologies developed from the lessons learned through the use of outer space. The development of China’s commercial launch industry provides domestic companies the ability to cheaply and easily loft their products into Earth orbit, and state income is produced through China’s selling of commercial launches to various domestic and foreign companies. Future plans for the mining of Helium-3 on the moon or valuable resources on near-Earth asteroids could potentially bring in enormous amounts of revenue and keep China’s resource-hungry economy sustained indefinitely.[xlv]

The Chinese space program also reflects and supports the government’s emphasis on education and science. Through the training of qualified space scientists and engineers, the fostering of space science interests in the youth, and the development of space-based education programs, the Chinese space program has gone to great lengths to increase the level of technical and scientific education among the Chinese population. These efforts seem to be successful, as demonstrated by widespread interest in space, science, and technology among the student population. As a result of this interest, higher levels of China’s college students are entering into college science and engineering departments. The broadcasting of television through satellites has supported China’s program of satellite education TV, which the government claims has enabled more than 30 million people to receive college or technical secondary school education since the 1980s.[xlvi] The growth of a generation of highly educated individuals interested in science, technology, and entering high-skill technical fields will enable China’s continued growth as a sophisticated, 21st-century economy in the coming decades. Furthermore, the ability for Chinese academies and universities to launch scientific payloads aboard China’s launch vehicles greatly expands their educational and research capabilities. Of course, as previously mentioned, the technological and educational progress made through the researching and development of space technology has helped China develop a more sophisticated, advanced, and knowledgeable academia.[xlvii]

Key among the domestic impacts of China’s space program, however, is its application as a source of national pride and unity. As discussed earlier, the Chinese government has routinely used the space program to highlight China’s achievements, accomplishments, and progress. An active space program, in the eyes of the Chinese population, is a sign of national and international prestige; accordingly, its continued success resonates with the Chinese people as an indicator of China overcoming its historical period of “national humiliation.” The development of China’s military capabilities in outer space reflects the government’s emphasis on “comprehensive national strength,” and indicates to the Chinese people China’s emerging military might. Furthermore, the development themes recurring in the Chinese leadership’s narratives about the space program suggest that China is on a path of growth, progress, and technological innovation, all of which appeal to the national pride of China’s citizenry. Indeed, the ability for China’s space program to excite and unite China’s population is demonstrated in its continued use by the Chinese media and government for propaganda purposes. Space missions are routinely addressed by the Chinese media and government as advancing and enhancing China’s power and prestige, rousing national ethos, and inspiring people of all of China’s ethnic groups for “the socialist cause with Chinese characteristics.”[xlviii] These messages clearly resonate with the Chinese people, who, as earlier stated, demonstrate high interest in China’s space missions and who regularly turn out in massive numbers for the parades and celebrations held for China’s recently returned astronauts.[xlix]

These beneficial domestic impacts are crucial for China’s leadership, for they help support and legitimize continued CCP rule.[l] The Chinese Communist Party has premised its continued rule on its ability to produce economic results, to advance China’s development as a technological and economic power, to overcome China’s past humiliations, and to enhance China’s standing in the international community. As the Chinese space program supports all of these goals in various ways, the Chinese government has come to see the space program as a reinforcing agent in China’s domestic politics. It is no wonder, then, that the Chinese leadership is so quick to enthusiastically support the continued development of the program and reinforce the linkages between the program’s benefits and its political platform.

Foreign Significance

The international impact of China’s space program is perhaps most clearly evident in its military application. The development of China’s fleet of dual-use satellites has benefitted China in its quest to establish security, assert regional hegemony, and reach military parity with the United States. As earlier mentioned, China’s observation, communications, and navigation satellites all provide support to the PLA’s ground, air, and naval operations, thereby enhancing their capacity to assert regional hegemony through hard power projection. Furthermore, the dual-use of the programs launch vehicles as ballistic and intercontinental missiles allows the Chinese military global striking range with its tactical and nuclear weapons. The development of offensive and defensive space technologies provides China the capability to track, counter, and destroy enemy nations’ space assets, a crucial element of modern, high-tech warfare. Indeed, through these counterspace technologies, China has developed an effective deterrent against American power projection in the Asia-Pacific, which relies heavily upon American space assets for coordination and execution.

The expansion of China’s civilian space program serves to enhance China’s standing on the international stage. Through the accomplishment of a number of space “firsts,” the Chinese leadership has been able to portray China as a scientific and technological leader in the Asia-Pacific. The landing of Chang’e 3 on the moon marked the first time an Asian power conducted a lunar lander, and the manned flights of Shenzhou have been the only human missions conducted by an Asian space program. The Yunghuo 1 mission of 2011 was to be the first Asian mission to Mars, although its failure and the subsequent success of India’s 2014 Mars Orbiter Mission meant that China could not achieve such a “first.” The importance placed on these symbolic achievements by national governments is demonstrated by the ramping up of space activities by a number of Asian space programs. As previously mentioned, India has conducted a mission to Mars, and has plans for subsequent missions to Mars and the Moon. It too is in the process of developing a manned space program.[li] In the wake of Chang’e 3’s landing on the moon, the Japanese space agency announced its own plans for a campaign of lunar landings and exploration.[lii] However, at this stage, these powers are playing “catch up” to China’s accomplishments. Nonetheless, the competition between regional powers in the arena of space demonstrates the “soft power” impact of an active space program, and Chinese success in this area has thereby enabled the Chinese leadership to assert its supremacy over its neighbors. Indeed, as evidenced by the “space race” of the 1950s and 1960s, maintain an active and expanding manned space program is perceived by the international community as the hallmark of a great power. The Chinese leadership, recognizing this, has therefore committed heavily to the development of its manned programs.

China’s history of cooperation with international partners in outer space is also of great significance. China has had longstanding ties with the Russian, Brazilian, and European space agencies which involve agreements for cooperation on the development of space missions, transfers of technology and information, joint training, and participation in major space programs.[liii] Through these cooperative agreements and longstanding ties, China is capable of building partnerships and relationships which have the potential to extend beyond the realm of space. History has demonstrated that cooperation in space activities develop norms of cooperation and mutual understandings between partners which serve to benefit a cooperative, diplomatic resolution to broader political concerns and disagreements. Furthermore, through the binding of its space program with other programs and the resulting establishment of joint responsibilities, China has effectively limited the ability for its foreign partners to disavow or terminate cooperation with China; such is a similar affect to the mutual Russian-American responsibility for the ISS continuing cooperatively despite geopolitical tensions between the two states. Additionally, establishing space partnerships enables China to develop a geopolitical counter to American hegemony. Many see the Chinese-Russian space partnership as an element in a broader partnership designed to counter American influence, while the growing partnership between the European Space Agency and the Chinese space program has been seen by some as China’s strategy of limiting the clout and influence the United States has in convincing its allies to support the containment of China’s and the growth of its capabilities.[liv] The Chinese commercial launch market, by catering to the needs of countries without indigenous launching capabilities, helps strengthen China’s international economic ties. As analysts of the Asia-Pacific are quick to point out, China’s economic ties with numerous states prevent the formation of a bloc designed to contain China’s continued rise. As many countries don’t wish to jeopardize their significant economic relationships with China, they will be less likely to abandon those ties in order to balance against China, allowing China’s rise to continue without concentrated opposition. The establishment of economic ties in the realm of space therefore furthers China’s goal for an unopposed rise to hegemony. Finally, China’s emphasis on cooperation in space reflects the Chinese leadership’s rhetorical position of international cooperation and peaceful coexistence, and thereby further emphasizes the international standing which China’s leaders hope for China to be seen.[lv]

Finally, and of much significance for the impact of China’s space program internationally, the Chinese program is rapidly developing at a time when the United States and Russian programs, long seen as the major, established space programs, are facing stagnation. The Chinese space station is expected to be placed into orbit around the same time the ISS, Russia’s and America’s space station, is to be decommissioned. Although NASA has ambitious plans for the manned exploration of Mars, such plans are still decades away from being realized, and as of 2015 the United States has no national spacecraft capable of manned missions in use. The Russian space program, meanwhile, has been mired with technical problems and malfunctions and is significantly strapped for cash.[lvi] As such, some see China’s redoubled efforts in outer space as an attempt to supplant the United States and Russia as the world’s eminent space power while the American and Russian programs remain stagnant. Doing so would be a major “soft power” and propaganda feat for China, for it would demonstrate in the eyes of its citizens and the international community that China has surpassed the world’s superpower in an important metric of great power status.

Conclusion – An Effective Tool

The political, military, economic, and cultural benefits brought about through China’s space program show considerable parallels to the Apollo-era American rationale for pursuing space flight; the Chinese leadership is not pursuing space development not just as an end in itself, but as part of its larger strategy of asserting Chinese power and influence on the world stage.[lvii] There exists a view among the Chinese space community and leadership that “to be a major power, a country must have a space station.”[lviii] Indeed, in the opinion of numerous scholars, China has sought to emulate existing great powers by achieving the “metrics” that identify great power status in the contemporary international system. Along with the hosting of the Beijing Olympics and the construction of major weapons systems like the Liaoning class aircraft carrier, the development of China’s space program places China in an “elite club” of powers which stand out in the international community. Indeed, Chinese commentary and reflections on the space program regularly emphasize how Chinese space accomplishments place China among a small club of other technologically advanced, globally eminent powers.[lix]

Through its rhetorical messages, China’s leadership has sought to portray China to its citizens and to the international community as a rising major power. The development of China’s economy, a focus on education, science, and technology, the advancement of China’s military capabilities and reach, and the level of China’s international prestige are all “soft power” factors which the Chinese government has used to demonstrate China’s rising status. Meanwhile, through the deployment of “hard power” offensive and defensive capabilities, the Chinese leadership has sought to demonstrate their ability to counter America’s containment efforts. Asserting power in order to deter or counter the American presence in the Asia-Pacific is a key step in China’s quest for regional hegemony, and is ultimately necessary for China to rise as a superpower with global reach and influence. The Chinese space program, through its dual civil and military use, supports the achievement of all of these aims.

Recognizing this, the Chinese leadership has lent enthusiastic support to the Chinese space program, seeing to it that its ambitious and growing capabilities continue to develop. More importantly, they have used the space program as a propaganda tool to reflect their message of China’s growth and development, a message intimately connected to China’s view of itself as a major power in the global arena. Through its practical military and security applications, the economic, technological, and cultural benefits it brings domestically, and its effective application in Chinese rhetoric and propaganda for building a sense of national pride and unity, China’s space program is today an effective tool used by the Chinese leadership for establishing China, in the eyes of both its citizens and the international community, as one of the world’s major power.

Works Cited

[i] Harvey, Brian. China’s Space Program: From Conception to Manned Spaceflight. (2004). Chichester: Praxis.

[ii] (2003, October). China and the Second Space Age. Retrieved from http://www.futron.com/upload/wysiwyg/Resources/Whitepapers/China_n_%20Second_Space_Age_1003.pdf

[iii] Sadeh, Eligar (ed.). Space Strategy in the 21st Century. (2014). London: Routledge.

[iv] Kulacki, Gregory and Lewis, Jeffery G. (2009). A Place for One’s Mat: China’s Space Program, 1956-2003. Retrieved from http://carnegie.org/fileadmin/Media/Publications/PDF/spaceChina.pdf

[v] Sadeh, Eligar (ed.). Space Strategy in the 21st Century.

[vi] Harvey, Brian. China’s Space Program: From Conception to Manned Spaceflight.

[vii] Sadeh, Eligar (ed.) Space Strategy in the 21st Century.

[viii] China and the Second Space Age.

[ix] Kulacki, Gregory and Lewis, Jeffery G. A Place for One’s Mat: China’s Space Program, 1956-2003.

[x]China and the Second Space Age.

[xi] Sheenan, Michael. (2013). ‘Did you see that, grandpa Mao?’ The prestige and propaganda rationales of the Chinese space program. Space Policy, 29, 107-112.

[xii]Kulacki, Gregory and Lewis, Jeffery G. A Place for One’s Mat: China’s Space Program, 1956-2003.

[xiii] China and the Second Space Age.

[xiv] Cheng, Dean and Stokes, Mark A. (eds.). (2012, April). China’s Evolving Space Capabilities: Implications for U.S. Interests. Retrieved from http://project2049.net/documents/uscc_china-space-program-report_april-2012.pdf

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Sheenan, Michael. ‘Did you see that, grandpa Mao?’ The prestige and propaganda rationales of the Chinese space program.

[xvii] Cheng, Dean and Stokes, Mark A. (eds.). China’s Evolving Space Capabilities: Implications for U.S. Interests.

[xviii] Harvey, Brian. China in Space: The Great Leap Forward. (2013). Chichester: Praxis.

[xix] David, Leonard. (2013). China Lands on the Moon: Historic Robotic Lunar Landing Includes 1st Chinese Rover. Retrieved from http://www.space.com/23968-china-moon-rover-historic-lunar-landing.html

[xx] Chang, Deng. (Spring, 2012). China’s Military Role in Space. Space Studies Quarterly, 55-78.

[xxi] Sheenan, Michael. ‘Did you see that, grandpa Mao?’ The prestige and propaganda rationales of the Chinese space program.

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] Cheng, Dean and Stokes, Mark A. (eds.). China’s Evolving Space Capabilities: Implications for U.S. Interests.

[xxiv] Ibid.

[xxv] Sheenan, Michael. ‘Did you see that, grandpa Mao?’ The prestige and propaganda rationales of the Chinese space program.

[xxvi] Sibing, He. (2003). What’s next for China in space after Shenzhou? Space Policy 19, 183-189.

[xxvii] Chang, Deng. China’s Military Role in Space. Space Studies Quarterly, 55-78.

[xxviii] Harvey, Brian. China in Space: The Great Leap Forward. (2013). Chichester: Praxis.

[xxix] Chang, Deng. China’s Military Role in Space. Space Studies Quarterly, 55-78.

[xxx] Harvey, Brian. China in Space: The Great Leap Forward. (2013). Chichester: Praxis.

[xxxi] Chang, Deng. China’s Military Role in Space. Space Studies Quarterly, 55-78.

[xxxii] Cheng, Dean and Stokes, Mark A. (eds.). China’s Evolving Space Capabilities: Implications for U.S. Interests.

[xxxiii] Chang, Deng. China’s Military Role in Space. Space Studies Quarterly, 55-78

[xxxiv] Cheng, Dean and Stokes, Mark A. (eds.). China’s Evolving Space Capabilities: Implications for U.S. Interests.

[xxxv] China and the Second Space Age.

[xxxvi] Cheng, Dean and Stokes, Mark A. (eds.). China’s Evolving Space Capabilities: Implications for U.S. Interests.

[xxxvii] Solomone, Stacey. (2006). China’s Space Program: the great leap upward. Journal of Contemporay China, 15(47), 311-327.

[xxxviii] Sheenan, Michael. ‘Did you see that, grandpa Mao?’ The prestige and propaganda rationales of the Chinese space program.

[xxxix] Solomone, Stacey. China’s Space Program: the great leap upward.

[xl] Sheenan, Michael. ‘Did you see that, grandpa Mao?’ The prestige and propaganda rationales of the Chinese space program.

[xli] Ibid.

[xlii] Ibid.

[xliii] Ibid.

[xliv] Cheng, Dean and Stokes, Mark A. (eds.). China’s Evolving Space Capabilities: Implications for U.S. Interests.

[xlv] Solomone, Stacey. China’s Space Program: the great leap upward.

[xlvi] Ibid.

[xlvii] Sheenan, Michael. ‘Did you see that, grandpa Mao?’ The prestige and propaganda rationales of the Chinese space program.

[xlviii] Ibid.

[xlix] Ibid.

[l] Sadeh, Eligar (ed.) Space Strategy in the 21st Century.

[li] Kremer, Ken. (2014, September). India’s First Mars Mission MOM Meets Mars on Sept. 23/24. Retrieved from http://www.universetoday.com/114746/indias-first-mars-mission-mom-meets-mars-on-sept-2324-watch-arrival-live/

[lii] (2014, April). Japan planning moon mission: space agency. Retrieved from http://phys.org/news/2015-04-japan-moon-mission-space-agency.html

[liii] Smith, Marcia S. (2003, October). China’s Space Program: An Overview. Congressional Research Service. Retrieved from http://www.defense.gov/pubs/20030730chinaex.pdf

[liv] Erickson, Andrew A, and Johnson-Freese, Joan. (2006). The emerging China-EU space partnership: A geotechnical balancer. Space Policy (22), 12-22.

[lv] Sheenan, Michael. ‘Did you see that, grandpa Mao?’ The prestige and propaganda rationales of the Chinese space program.

[lvi] Harvey, Brian. China in Space: The Great Leap Forward. (2013). Chichester: Praxis.

[lvii] Johnson-Freese, Joan. (2002, Fall). China’s Manned Space Program, What is that all about? Harvard Asia Pacific Review. Retrieved from http://web.mit.edu/lipoff/www/hapr/fall02_science/space.pdf

[lviii] Pollpeter, Kevin. (2011, October). Tiangong-1 launch make’s China’s space station plans a reality. China Brief. 11(19).

[lix] Sheenan, Michael. ‘Did you see that, grandpa Mao?’ The prestige and propaganda rationales of the Chinese space program.

Saudi Arabia’s Shia Youth – A Crisis in the Making? (Updated)


Although Saudi Arabia is today the Gulf’s major regional and economic power, the Saudi regime is struggling with an internal Shia oppositional movement which has the potential to seriously threaten the state’s continued security and stability. A major factor abetting the development and organization of this opposition to Saudi rule is the sectarian nature of Saudi Sunni-Shia relations. Saudi Arabia’s Shia population is subject to significant government-sponsored policies of discrimination and repression, which are buoyed by both the monarchy’s support for ultra-conservative Wahhabi Islam 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 economically-vital, oil-rich areas of Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, this resentment, should it continue to grow, could become a considerable economic and security issue for the Saudi regime. Particularly important in the development of this opposition 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. To provide further insights into the nature of this under-studied opposition movement, this paper details the character of Sunni-Shia relations in Saudi Arabia, with a particular emphasis placed on the perceptions and activities of the Shia youth. The Saudi government’s policies of discrimination and sectarianism are described and analyzed, as are the Shia youth protest movements’ organization, protest tactics, and history. Of course, the ultimate significance of the Shia opposition movement may be in its application as a case-study in revolution theory. By connecting the characteristics of the Shia protests and the context in which they exist with a variety of revolution theories, the overall dynamics of Shia opposition are better explored. Furthermore, through this case-study approach, the strength of these theories in describing the nature of revolutionary movements and moments may be revealed. Finally, taking into consideration the lasting and recurrently violent nature of the Saudi Shia opposition, this paper proposes and explores a number of policy options and reforms aimed at resolving fundamental tensions which the Saudi government could potentially undertake.

Background – The Policies of Discrimination Facing Saudi Shia

Around 15 percent of Saudi Arabia’s 27 million inhabitants are Shia Muslims, making them a distinct minority in the otherwise overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim state. Saudi Arabia’s Shia live predominantly in the Kingdom’s oil-rich Eastern Province, with the largest concentrations in the area around the Eastern Province cities of Qatif and Al-Hasa.[i] There is also a small Shia community in Medina, while around 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 subscribes to and follows the Twelver school.[iii] These sectarian concerns, being born in part by Saudi Arabia’s international tensions with Iran, underlie the discrimination which Saudi Shia face. As will be seen, the use of Islam by Iran and Saudi Arabia as a political tool in their competition for regional influence and hegemony has made Saudi Arabia’s minority Shia not only a significant cause for government suspicion and concern, but also a frequent target of government harassment and propaganda designed to dispel the broader political and economic frustrations of the Saudi population.

In terms of population and political activity, Saudi Arabia’s youth should constitute a concern for the regime; more than half of the country’s population is under 21 years old and frustrated with their substantial and continuing political and economic marginalization. Many in the younger generation are more liberal than the current ruling generation and desire political, social, and economic reform.[iv] Highly internet-savvy, the Saudi youth have found ways to mobilize and protest against the government which undermine the regime’s traditional capacity for political suppression.[v] The Shia youth are no different and, with the added grievances of discrimination and sectarianism, therefore 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. Because of the Shia presence, the eastern areas of Saudi Arabia have remained a lesser priority to the regime than the Sunni center and west in terms of political power, economic development, and importance in the narratives and character of the state.[vi] It is in the Eastern Province 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 bureaucratic patronage system is growing, and acutely affects the Shia youth. Infrastructure and services are being strained and the public sector is growing increasingly bloated.[vii] It would be an oversimplification, then, 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.[viii]

Shia in the Eastern Province lack the ability to provide input into municipal budgets or to influence the administration of their province, creating significant political frustration. While the issue of political participation, or the lack thereof, also affects Eastern Province Sunni, additional policies of discrimination are further imposed upon 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.[ix] At present, there is no single Shia cabinet member or deputy minister, and Shia individuals holding those positions have historically been rare occurrences.[x] While at the local level have some forms of representation in provincial municipal councils, real power in the Eastern Province lies instead at the governorate level, which is firmly controlled by the royal family.[xi] The Saudi regime has found significant political capital as a result of its policies which politically marginalize Shia and Sunni citizens alike. By stifling political freedoms and participation, the regime is able to suppress reform movements that would potentially undermine the status quo. The royal family has supported this political environment through its narrative that the state’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.[xii] 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.[xiii]

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 and misunderstanding between local Shia communities and law enforcement officers. The Shia are often subject to arbitrary arrests, searches, and seizures.[xiv] Saudi education, meanwhile, is framed in an anti-Shia manner, with school textbooks and curriculum frequently containing derogatory allusions to the Shia and occasionally putting forth arguments for socially excluding or even killing them.[xv] The Shia also face obstacles towards working in the developing Saudi education system; currently there is no Shia head of a university or girls school professor.[xvi] Shia treatment under the Saudi judicial system, which is governed by the Sunni Hanbali School of jurisprudence, has been a further 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.[xvii] The power of these Shia courts is also restricted by Sunni courts, which have veto power over the Shia courts’ rulings.[xviii] Meanwhile, Shia in other parts of the country, including Shia-minority areas of the Eastern Province and Shia areas of Medina, have access to only Sunni courts.

Saudi Arabia’s 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 as “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.[xix] Although the regime permits the Saudi Shia private religious gatherings, they nonetheless face bureaucratic and legal obstacles during the process of licensing mosques and mourning houses. Furthermore, the Shia are not allowed to build mosques or run places of worship in cities with mixed Sunni-Shia populations.[xx] Finally, 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, further adding to the political and religious marginalization which the Shia experience.[xxi]

Underlying this sectarian discrimination is the alliance between the ruling al-Saud family and the Wahhabi/Salafi religious establishment, an alliance which has existed since the beginnings of the Saudi state. The Wahhabi religious establishment is given a prominent role by the Saudi regime in defining Saudi Arabia’s political and social discourses, and, in return, legitimizes and buttresses the royal family’s rule.[xxii] For many clerics, continued access to political power is ensured by promoting anti-Shia sectarianism. Any recognition or support of the Shia identity could, as perceived by the regime and religious establishment, effectively undermine Salafi primacy in the country’s religious and social affairs.[xxiii] In order to manage demands for reforms and prevent any cross-sectarian cooperation among political activists and reformers, the regime has attempted to portray the Eastern Province protests as exclusively Shia in character. Sectarianism has thus 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.[xxiv]

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.[xxv] 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 Iranian Revolution, and events such as clashes in 1982 and 1987 between Saudi security forces and Iranian pilgrims have further strained the Saudi-Iranian relationship. Condemnations of Saudi Arabia by the Iranian revolutionary figure and leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini resulted in a Saudi regime wary of Iranian meddling in domestic affairs. Iranian subversion, the regime reasons, would most likely come about through Saudi Arabia’s Shia population.[xxvi] Although the Saudi Shia acknowledge their longstanding ties with Shia clerics in Iraq and Iran, they concurrently assert that their religious alliance does not amount to loyalty to foreign governments.[xxvii] Furthermore, while there is historical precedent of Saudi Shia supporting subversive groups with Iranian connections, Shia oppositional groups now overwhelmingly eschew political ties with Iran and reject Iranian theocratic governance.[xxviii]

Thus, Saudi Arabia’s Shia population today faces considerable discrimination in their daily political, religious, and economic lives. Yet neither these policies nor the underlying factors which have produced them are recent developments. Rather, 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. Tracing the historical development of sectarianism and discrimination toward the Shia reveals the growing involvement of aggressive, activist Shia youth in contemporary protest movements. These new trends in Shia opposition are the product of continued failures by both Shia activists and the Saudi government to resolve the underlying issues causing popular resentment.

The History of Saudi Sunni-Shia Sectarianism and Shia Opposition

Sectarian tensions between Shia and Sunni Muslims are nearly as old as the historical split in the religion, and have long existed in the Arabian Peninsula.[xxix] For the Shia of Saudi Arabia, a history of discrimination can be traced to the beginning of the state. The Emirate of Diriyah, an 18th century Saudi state formed through an alliance between Muhammad Ibn Saud and the ultra-conservative imam Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, routinely 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.[xxx] In the decades which followed, Saudi Shia continued to be treated as second class citizens, having their 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.[xxxi] The Iranian Revolution of 1979 further spurred heightened activism among Shia in the Eastern Province and signaled a shift of power from “quietist,” non-revolutionary Shia leaders to revolutionary-minded, younger activists. In November 1979, Shia protesters defied a government ban on Muharram holiday 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.[xxxii] Meanwhile, leaders of the uprising founded a protest group known as the “Organization for the Islamic Revolution,” which soon developed close ties with the revolutionary Iranian government. Saudi clerical and lay activists quickly became instrumental in supporting this group.[xxxiii] As stated earlier, it is from these developments that the Saudi government’s suspicions of its Shia population stem. These historical connections between Shia activists in Saudi Arabia and the Iranian regime have long been pointed to by the Saudi government in order to justify its repressive policies toward the Shia.

Eventually, however, Iran became dissatisfied with its inability to directly control the Organization for the Islamic Revolution, prompting the Iranian government to form a more militant group in Saudi Arabia known as the “Hezbollah al-Hejaz.”[xxxiv] This group launched a series of terrorist attacks within Saudi Arabia, 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.[xxxv] By the end of the 1980s, a growing number of Saudi Shia activists had recognized the limits of violent opposition. 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.[xxxvi] 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.[xxxvii]

The accession of King Abdullah, perceived by the Saudi population and press to be more liberal-minded than his predecessors, 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, progress and understanding made through cross-sectarian dialogue soon became undone due to rising sectarian tensions in Saudi society and government obstacles formed against such efforts.[xxxviii]

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.[xxxix] 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.[xl] However, far from stifling dissent, al-Nimr’s arrest bolstered his base of support and further galvanized the Shia youth’s resentment of the regime.

The Contemporary History of Saudi Shia Opposition

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.[xli] For many, outright opposition seemed like the only means to achieve reform.[xlii] 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.[xliii] 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.[xliv] In the face of increased security presence around Riyadh and Jeddah, the March 11th cross-sectarian protest, dubbed the “Day of Rage” by organizers, came and went without mass protest.[xlv]

The Saudi regime’s counteroffensive against the protests took several forms. The King announced a package of twenty economic gifts to the people worth an estimated $93 billion.[xlvi] Meanwhile, a media campaign was launched to discredit the protests, emphasizing their destructive nature and portraying them as serving subversive Shia interests.[xlvii] 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. [xlviii] 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 masse. 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.[xlix]

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.[l] 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.[li] The summer and fall of 2012 were accordingly marked with sustained protests in the east.[lii] There were 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.[liii] It was during this time that the country’s state prosecutor called for the crucifixion of Nimr al-Nimr.[liv] In August of 2014, protests broke out across the Eastern Province calling for the release of Nimr al-Nimr and other political prisoners.[lv] 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.[lvi]

Nonetheless, 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.”[lvii] The verdict raised fears of renewed protests and dissent, with many seeing the sentencing as further alienating Shia youth from the government and inhibiting any peaceful movement toward the addressing of dissent.[lviii] Indeed, in late October, small-scale protests against the sentence had broken out across the Eastern Province.[lix] In November, amidst increasingly abrasive rhetoric by Wahhabi preachers against them, eight Shia worshippers were killed in an attack on a Shia shrine in al-Hasa.[lx] However, facing expanded government crackdown, protests in the Eastern Province became more subdued over the winter of 2014 and into early 2015. The Saudi regime established a special court to deal with “terrorist offenses,” which sentenced dozens of activists and protest participants to long stays in prison. Protesting against the Saudi regime was further deemed a “terrorist offence.”[lxi] The most prominent case of violence in 2015 has been an early April shootout in the Eastern Province town of al-Awamiya, in which a Saudi policeman was killed during a raid on a building suspected to be housing Shia dissidents.[lxii]

As a result of the continued government crackdown against Shia protests, as well as the Saudi military’s mobilization for its present war in Yemen, numerous analysts and Saudi organizers doubt whether the opposition can continue as it has over the past four years. Despite heightened fears over a sectarian backlash over the Saudi war in Yemen, it may be unlikely that the Shia are prepared to take back to the streets. Some organizers, such as Jafar al-Sahyeb, a member of the al-Qatif municipal council, have come to recognize that, as was the case in the late 1980s and early 1990s, violent opposition has its limits when met with stiff resistance. “People are in a different mood than three years ago,” he wrote in early 2015, “They realize that they have got no results from protesting… the conclusion has been that better communication with local officials is a better means for them to achieve what they are looking for.”[lxiii] Should attitudes among Saudi Shia in the Eastern Province indeed be beginning to shift away from continuing violent opposition, then, as the comparatively subdued activity over the past months would suggest, the outbreak of violence which has continued since the “Day of Rage” may be nearing its end. Yet, as Jafar al-Sahyeb points out, “[Shia] people have complaints and demands for tolerance and equality and they will continue to make clear their issues.”[lxiv] Accordingly, even if this period of Shia protest against the regime is shifting away from violence, the core issues at the root of the Shia opposition nonetheless remain important. Far from resolving these issues, the Saudi crackdown against Shia protests have only reinforced them as an outstanding source of conflict and tension.

Regardless of the ultimate success of the Shia opposition against the Saudi regime, the characteristics of the opposition movement and the context in which it exists makes it a fascinating case-study in revolution theory. By connecting the characteristics of the Shia opposition, along with the context in which it exists, with established revolution theory, the overall dynamics of the movement can be better analyzed and explored. Furthermore, a comparison of the trajectory which the opposition has taken and the corresponding response by the Saudi regime with the predictions laid out by revolution theory can help explain how and why the Shia opposition has, despite longstanding grievances and periods of violence, failed to produce tangible progress in achieving its goals. Prior to an analysis of the Saudi Shia opposition through the lens of revolution theory can be undertaken, however, the organization and character of the opposition must first be addressed.

 The Organization and Character of the Saudi Shia Youth Opposition

As described earlier, a history of systemic marginalization has provides ample reason for the Shia in Saudi Arabia to oppose the Saudi regime. Discrimination, limited reforms, and repression have frustrated Saudi Shia, pushing them to release their resentment through violent protests. Over the course of the last 5 years, 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.[lxv] 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.[lxvi]

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.[lxvii] 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.”[lxviii] 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 platforms 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.[lxix] 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.[lxx] 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.[lxxi] 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.[lxxii]

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 has been instrumental in mobilizing activity the streets.[lxxiii] 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.[lxxiv]

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.

 The Saudi Shia Opposition and Revolution Theory

There exists a broad field of theory analyzing and describing revolutions, revolutionary moments, and revolutionary movements which can be applied to the particular case of Saudi Arabia’s Shia opposition. Among various other features, these theories help explain the success or failure of regime response in ending a revolution, the nature and significance of revolution organization, and the underlying social, political, and cultural ideologies which help aggravate or inhibit the development of a revolutionary movement. Two works of revolution theory, which will be used in this analysis, stand out as particularly applicable to the Shia opposition movement. The first is the “youth bulge” theory, which describes the effects of disproportionately large youth populations on civil conflict and unrest in a society. The second is Jack Goldstone’s seminal work “Toward a Fourth Generation of Revolution Theory,” which focuses on the factors which cement the stability of regimes and takes into account leadership, ideology, and processes of identification as critical to revolutionary movements. Through these various analytical lenses, the case of Saudi Arabia’s Shia opposition can be better understood.

As mentioned, the “youth bulge” theory describes the effect of large youth populations on a society’s stability, and contends that societies with rapidly growing youth populations are vulnerable to rampant unemployment and large groups of disaffected youths. Such is clearly the case in Saudi Arabia, where widespread youth unemployment has led to dissatisfaction among both the Sunni and the Shia. Significantly, it is the disaffected youths who are the most susceptible to recruitment into rebel or terrorist groups, for they are least bound to economic, familial, or social obligations and responsibilities.[lxxv] Again, this can be seen in the case of Saudi Arabia’s Shia youth, who now constitute a significant and growing portion of the Shia opposition movement and who are the most drawn to its rhetoric of justice and opportunity for the Shia. Furthermore, the “youth bulge” theory contends that countries with weak political institutions are most vulnerable to youth-related violence and social unrest, for they lack the institutional mechanisms needed to co-opt or otherwise channel grievances in a manner preventing violence.[lxxvi] While Saudi Arabia’s institutions are not “weak” in the sense that they are dysfunctional or non-present, they have little connection or importance to the disaffected Shia who constitute the Shia opposition movement. With no opportunity for political linkage or expression within the Saudi political establishment, and with little to no representation within the Saudi government, the Shia youth cannot turn to Saudi institutions as a forum for dialogue in which peaceful solutions can be found. Rather, as the “youth bulge” theory describes, they channel their grievances through violence and unrest, operating outside of the institutional framework which would otherwise be the means for resolving domestic issues.

Goldstone’s “Fourth Generation” revolution theory is instrumental in describing various aspects of the Shia opposition, including the sources of popular Shia resentment, the formation of protest ideologies, the impact of organization on the success of the movement, and the effects of repression by the regime. First, the theory agrees with the assertions of the “youth bulge” theory that “sustained population growth in excess of economic growth frequently alters the relationships among states, elites, and popular groups in ways that undermine stability.”[lxxvii] The inability for Saudi Shia, and especially the growing Shia youth, to find the means for economic success has indeed undermined the Saudi state’s stability, for it has created a group with distinct grievances over the state’s and Saudi elites’ abilities to provide for their livelihood. Furthermore, as Goldstone describes, “rulers who sell offices or appoint favorites to high positions may win their loyalty but incur the resentment of those left out.”[lxxviii] Again, such is the case in Saudi Arabia, where the Wahhabi establishment, which already stirs feelings of resentment among Saudi Shia because of its sectarian rhetoric, is given a place of primacy in the Saudi state by the monarchy. Systemically left out of state institutions and high office, the Shia then naturally feel resentment, manifest in opposition, toward the regime.

A crucial element in the formation of an opposition movement is the creation of a “protest ideology and identity,” which Goldstone details as being crucial for inciting disaffected individuals toward mobilization against a regime. A key part of this protest identity is the portrayal of the state as immoral and unjust, standing in contrast to the just cause of the opposition. Furthermore, “material deprivations and threats need to be seen not merely as miserable conditions but as a direct result of the injustice and the moral and political failings of the state.”[lxxix] These elements can be seen in action in the case of Saudi Arabia’s Shia opposition. Through opposition rhetoric, especially that coming from popular clerics such as Nimr al-Nimr, the regime is portrayed as corrupt, immoral, and unjust. As Goldstone’s description of the motivational power of protest identity would describe, the rhetorical portrayal of the regime as immoral has been a powerful force in bringing Saudi Shia, and especially the Shia youth, to the street. Additionally, a “culture of rebellion” from widely remembered prior conflicts can help drive individuals to mobilization and aggravate violence.[lxxx] Perhaps such explains the recurring bouts of violence exhibited by the Shia opposition, which, drawing upon memory of the action taken during and violent precedents set by the opposition of the 1980s and early 1990s, were more readily compelled to take to the street in a return to violent protest.

The organizational structure and character of an opposition movement also comes under examination by Goldstone’s revolution theory. He writes of “informal mobilization,” saying that it occurs “when individuals’ decisions to engage in protest actions are made not through communal organizations to which they have long-standing formal ties but instead through loosely connected networks based on personal friendship, shared workplace, or neighborhood.”[lxxxi] Such appears to be the case in the Saudi Shia opposition. Formal oppositional organization is not conducted through means traditional to the Middle East, such as in the mosque, because of the typical lack of strong community organizations in Saudi Arabia and the prohibitions on the formation of Shia mosques and community groups. Rather, organization has largely taken place over social media, where networks of cellular opposition groups can coordinate in ways which undermine the regime’s usual capacity for suppression. Yet the nature of social media is such that individuals rely upon personal friendships and other loose, informal connections in order to be drawn into these networks. Without a strong, formal, centralized form of organization, the protests which these groups launch are usually lacking in large-scale mobilization or fail to grow in momentum. Such would be as Goldstone predicts, saying that “informational organization [is] not inherently revolutionary and usually leads only to abortive rural rebellions and urban protest.”[lxxxii]

Goldstone also details the significance of regime repression against an opposition movement, noting that violence against an opposition can, if improperly used or used too late, may demonstrate the failings of a regime and only incite more people to join the opposition against it. However, significantly, “repression that is powerful, or that is focused on a small “deviant” group, may be seen as evidence of state effectiveness and cow the opposition.”[lxxxiii] Indeed, “when a regime is seen as unshakeable, indiscriminate violence and terror may simply reduce the opposition to silence.”[lxxxiv] Such is because “the actions and reactions of regimes… all reshape the processes of group identification, perceptions of the efficacy and justice of the regime and its opponents, and estimates of what changes are possible.”[lxxxv] Facing a continuing and intense security crackdown by the Saudi regime, the organizers of the Shia opposition movement have, as Goldstone details, reshaped their perceptions of what changes are possible through sustained violent protest. Like was the case with the Islahiyyin in the 1990s and possibly with the movement today, recognition that regime repression represents a concentrated and effective effort by the state to undermine the protest movement has prompted a recalculation of opposition strategy. Although grievances remain for the Saudi Shia, the violence through which they expressed them has, over the past few months, largely abated. Such is because, like the theory states, the regime has effectively reduced the opposition to silence.

An application of revolution theory to the case of the Saudi Shia opposition reveals the forces driving people to mobilize in support of it, but also demonstrates why the opposition has, in the past months, moved away from active, violent protests. The Saudi circumstances of a substantial youth population, already susceptible to joining protests movements, coupled with a rhetorical portrayal by various Shia clerics of the Saudi regime as immoral, corrupt, and unjust, have created an environment where an opposition to the Saudi regime can gain support. Yet, as Goldstone’s theories point out, the informal, decentralized, and disjointed nature of the opposition, coupled with an effective and lasting repression response by the regime, has prevented the opposition from achieving any substantial success. Indeed, in light of the regime’s counter-mobilization against the opposition and as detailed by theories on revolution movements, many Shia are beginning to reevaluate the efficacy of their protests and their capacity to make lasting change through violence. Still, the grievances which have incited Saudi Arabia’s Shia to violently oppose the regime still remain unresolved, and therefore have continued potential to cause unrest within Saudi Arabia. In order to analyze potential solutions for resolving the underlying issues affecting the Shia, a number of policy suggestions should be explored.

 Policy Suggestions for Resolving the Issue of Shia Opposition

If the Saudi government wishes to effectively deal with its Shia opposition, it would be within the regime’s interest to address and resolve the multifold issues affecting the Shia population. Past approaches to dealing with the problem, such as outright ignoring Shia grievances, co-opting Shia reformers, and responding to protests with crackdowns and violence, have proven ineffective at creating a lasting solution, if not counter-productive. Even if reform is to be attempted, ‘cosmetic’ or palliative attempts at reform would be ineffective, as exemplified by King Abdullah’s early attempts at dialogue and reform, which were followed years later by the “Day of Rage” and further protests. However, 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.[lxxxvi] 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.[lxxxvii]

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.[lxxxviii] 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 could 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 would benefit by recognizing 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.[lxxxix] 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.

Of course, for the Saudi 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 which had initially brought the royal family into power and which have since sustained 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 Saudi 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 recurrently violent nature show that the status quo cannot continue indefinitely. Ignoring long-standing grievances is only aggravating the very situation the regime would like to diffuse.


Saudi Arabia’s Shia youth represent the future of anti-government opposition in Saudi Arabia and should therefore be of significant 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 toward the state. Unless the Shia see tangible improvements in their living conditions, the unrest caused by their opposition to the state is likely to continue indefinitely. The only long-term solution to the issue of Saudi Arabia’s Shia opposition is substantial and comprehensive reform that counterbalances the inequities of inherent discrimination. Still, despite the failure of the Shia opposition to win concessions from the Saudi state, the Shia opposition represents an interesting case-study in revolution theory. An application of the theory to the circumstances and context of the opposition reveals and explains the various dynamics sustaining, supporting, and inhibiting it.

 Works Cited

[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] 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).

[v] For age demographics, see: Caryle Murphey, “Saudi Arabia’s Youth and the Kingdom’s Future.” 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.

[vi] 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).

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid.

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

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

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

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Ibid.

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

[xv] Ibid.

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

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

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

[xix] 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).

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

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

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

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

[xxiv] Ibid.

[xxv] Ibid.

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

[xxvii] Ibid.

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

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

[xxx] Ibid, 170-211.

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

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

[xxxiii] Ibid.

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

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

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

[xxxvii] 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).

[xxxviii] Ibid.

[xxxix] 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.”

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

[xli] Ibid.

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

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

[xliv] Ibid.

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

[xlvi] Ibid.

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

[xlviii] Ibid.

[xlix] Ibid.

[l] Ibid.

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

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

[liii] Ibid.

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

[lv] “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).

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

[lvii] 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).

[lviii] “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).

[lix] 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).

[lx] Orlando Crowcroft, “Saudi Arabia’s Shia and Riyadh’s other war – ‘the language of hatred is getting worse’,” IBTimes, http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/saudi-arabias-shia-riyadhs-other-war-language-hatred-getting-worse-1495364 (accessed May 2, 2015).


[lxii] “Saudi policeman killed in Shia town shootout,” Ahramonline, http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/2/8/127013/World/Region/Saudi-policeman-killed-in-Shia-town-shootout.aspx (accessed May 2, 2015).

[lxiii] Orlando Crowcroft, “Saudi Arabia’s Shia and Riyadh’s other war – ‘the language of hatred is getting worse’”

[lxiv] Ibid.

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

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

[lxvii] Ibid.

[lxviii] Ibid.

[lxix] Ibid.

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

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

[lxxii] 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).

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

[lxxiv] “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).

[lxxv] “Lionel Beehner, “The Effects of ‘Youth Bulge’ on Civil Conflicts,” Council on Foreign Relations, http://www.cfr.org/world/effects-youth-bulge-civil-conflicts/p13093 (accessed May 2, 2014).

[lxxvi] Ibid.

[lxxvii] Jack Goldstone, “Toward a fourth generation of revolutionary theory,” Annual Review of Political Science (2001):4, 139-187.

[lxxviii] Ibid.

[lxxix] Ibid.

[lxxx] Ibid.

[lxxxi] Ibid.

[lxxxii] Ibid.

[lxxxiii] Ibid.

[lxxxiv] Ibid.

[lxxxv] Ibid.

[lxxxvi] 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

[lxxxvii] Ibid.

[lxxxviii] Ibid.

[lxxxix] Ibid.

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