10th July, 2012

There is news of deaths in protests in eastern Saudi Arabia following the detention of extremist cleric Nimr Al-Nimr. What can we understand from these incidents and what are the implications for the Gulf region?

We shouldn’t look at these incidents in isolation. For example; there are particularly close familial and tribal ties between the Shia of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia; and close organizational ties between the Shia in these countries and the Shia of Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and beyond.

Shia in Saudi Arabia have been following events in Bahrain very carefully and certain well-known figures have been stirring up the communities in both countries. Nimr Al-Nimr, through his inflammatory sermons has clearly been busy with this inside Saudi Arabia, taking his lead from his own religious authorities in Iran.

Let’s not be naïve about this: Tensions between Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic are at an all time high, over Syria, Bahrain, Iranian assassination attempts of Saudi diplomats, Lebanon and other complex issues. Even if links between Saudi Shia and Iran weren’t well known, it would be obvious to anyone who knows Iran that the Iranian regime will be doing everything it can to give the Saudi Kingdom a domestic political headache.

So we have the ingredients for a perfect storm: Extremist figures inciting hatred; angry and unsettled communities; and regional powers interfering and further stirring the pot.

Undoubtedly, it is through fear of triggering an angry response that the Saudi authorities have refrained from previously taking action against Nimr Al-Nimr, while all the time he is spouting hatred and intolerance and attacking the Saudi authorities. However, it seems that his rhetoric went too far; with highly insulting attacks on the recently deceased Saudi Crown Prince and other dangerous incitement.

There will be Western observers who argue that Nimr was only exercising his freedom of speech. However, the kind of rhetoric that this cleric and those like him have been practicing – brainwashing thousands of impressionable young people who look to them for guidance – is the equivalent of tossing a lighted match into a barrel of gunpowder. Maybe some would try and argue that it was the gunpowder, not the match, which caused the explosion – but it is obvious to all right-thinking people where responsibility lies for the damage done.

Bahrain has benefitted greatly from Saudi support over the last year, and thus, we can be sure that Saudi Arabia has learnt much from Bahrain’s experiences.

If we see an intensification of such disturbances in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, we can therefore be confident that the Saudi authorities will handle these incidents with wisdom and restraint; responding assertively, but not punitively to those opposing the state with violence; showing determination, not weakness; and showing a willingness to listen where there are fair demands and legitimate grievances.

However, we should be clear about the following: Sectarian strife in both Kingdoms is not about democracy, liberalism or human rights. What we see very clearly is a determined attempt to further an intolerant Shia Islamist agenda; with angry crowds mobilized by religious figures with too much influence and too little sense of responsibility; and with an Iranian hand encouraging the militants and fanning the flames.

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