The American Kafir

2011/03/02

Fear of Domestic Unrest in Saudi Arabia

Filed under: Bahrain, Protests, Saudi Arabia, Shi'ite, Sunni — - @ 9:55 am

Source Link: STRATFOR

Unrest in the Persian Gulf region has been limited to small countries like Bahrain, Yemen and Oman. On Tuesday, however, the region’s powerhouse, Saudi Arabia, seemed to be inching closer to unrest within its border. Reuters reported that authorities in the Eastern province city of al Hafouf arrested a Shiite cleric who, in a sermon during congregational prayers last Friday, called for a constitutional monarchy. Reuters quoted a local rights activist as saying that state security forces arrested Tawfiq al-Amir, who was previously detained for demanding religious freedom.

Ever since popular risings toppled the Tunisian and Egyptian presidents, the Saudis have worried about the potential for unrest within the kingdom’s borders. But when street demonstrations erupted in neighboring Bahrain, the Saudi kingdom became even more concerned because Bahrain’s opposition consists largely of the country’s 70 percent Shiite majority.

Terrified at the prospect of empowerment of the Bahraini Shia, Riyadh has been closely working with Manama to contain the unrest. The Saudis fear that any gains made by the Bahraini Shia could energize the kingdom’s Shiite minority (estimated at 20 percent of the population, concentrated in the oil-rich Eastern province and linked to Bahrain via a causeway). The arrest of the Saudi Shiite cleric, however, could accelerate matters. The world’s largest exporter of crude could experience unrest even before the Bahraini Shia are able to extract concessions from their minority Sunni rulers.

Compounding matters for the Saudis is the fact that this is not just a sectarian rising. There are a great many Sunnis within the kingdom who desire political reforms. Such demands create problems for al-Saud at a time when the royal family is reaching a historic impasse due to an aging leadership.

Between the need to manage the transition, contain the general calls for political reforms, and deal with a restive Shiite population, the Saudi kingdom becomes vulnerable to its archrival, Iran, which is looking at the regional unrest as an opportunity to project power across the Persian Gulf. Even if there had been no outbreak of public agitation, Arabian Peninsula leaders were gravely concerned about a rising Iran. From the Saudis’ point of view, the 2011 withdrawal of American forces from Iraq will leave them exposed to an assertive Iran.

But now domestic turmoil, especially one involving Shia, only exacerbates matters for the Saudis. Political reforms in the kingdom threaten the Saudis’ historic hold on power. But any such reforms also translate into enhanced status of the minority Shiite population, which in turn means more room for Iran’s potential maneuvers.

The Saudis are thus facing a predicament in which pressures to effect change on the domestic level have serious geopolitical implications.

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