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, (accessed October 4, 2014). For the lower-range estimate, see also: Toby Matthiesen, “Saudi Arabia’s Shiite Problem,” Foreign Policy, (accessed October 4, 2014).

[ii] Ahmad K. Majidyar, “Saudi Arabia’s forgotten Shiite Spring,” American Enterprise Institute, (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. (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, (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, (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, (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, (accessed October 7, 2014).

[lv] “Saudis demand release of Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr,” PressTV, (accessed October 7, 2014).

[lvi] Aya Batrawy, “Verdict postponed on Saudi Shiite cleric,” Associated Press, (accessed October 7, 2014).

[lvii] Aya Batrawy, “Saudi Arabia Just Sentenced A Prominent Shia Scholar to Death,” Business Insider, (accessed October 16, 2014).

[lviii] “Saudi Arabia sentences Sheikh Nimr to death,” Al-Akhbar English, (accessed October 17, 2014).

[lix] Leila Fadel, “Saudi Cleric’s Death Sentence Focuses Shia Anger on Ruling Family,” NPR, (accessed October 18, 2014).

[lx] Orlando Crowcroft, “Saudi Arabia’s Shia and Riyadh’s other war – ‘the language of hatred is getting worse’,” IBTimes, (accessed May 2, 2015).


[lxii] “Saudi policeman killed in Shia town shootout,” Ahramonline, (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, (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, (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, (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, (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, (accessed October 17, 2014).

[lxxv] “Lionel Beehner, “The Effects of ‘Youth Bulge’ on Civil Conflicts,” Council on Foreign Relations, (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

[lxxxvii] Ibid.

[lxxxviii] Ibid.

[lxxxix] Ibid.