Saudi Arabian authorities have arrested leading Saudi Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr on sedition charges. Protests erupted in the Eastern Province, with two protestors shot dead by the authorities. Reuters reported that protestors chanted anti-Saud slogans at the funerals of the deceased, quoting protestors that tens of thousands took part in the demonstrations in the town of Qatif. No international media is present to verify the accounts. The authorities acknowledged that protests did take place after the arrest of al-Nimr, but denied that there were clashes between security forces and the protestors.
The reports also mentioned that the protestors carried Bahraini flags, in solidarity with the Shiite majority living in Bahrain, which neighbours the Eastern Province, off shore.
Some local clerics called for calm.
July 11, 2012
Analysis and Forecast: Increasing Risk
The arrest of Sheikh al-Nimr has instantly led to civil unrest, albeit to a limited and contained scale so far. He has previously been arrested and later released. However, the significance of his arrest at this time carries additional risks with potentially longer-term repercussions.
The reasons for the aggravated impact are both internal and external, as summarized below:
- Firstly, they come at a time when Saudi Arabia is preparing to go into a transition phase, related to succession. Whilst this is not an immediate issue, the climate that persists within Saudi Arabia revolves around the succession politics, leading to an overall increase in political risk. This also includes, but not limited to those in charge of the interior ministry, security forces as well as the Eastern Province.
- Secondly, they come at a time of on going tensions in neighbouring Bahrain. The protesters have already expressed solidarity with the Bahraini Shiite majority. The arrest and protests have triggered an intense wave of solidarity that will likely affect both Bahrain and the Eastern Province, with the latter being outspoken about feeling closer to the Shiites in Bahrain than to other parts of Saudi Arabia itself.
- Thirdly, the timing is one of increasing regional complexity as Iran and Russia have an increasingly tense situation with the GCC, and Saudi in particular.
As a result, there is an overall increase of political risk as well as an increased risk of continuing civil unrest, in both Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province as well as in Bahrain.
The figure below shows the proportion of Shiites in Saudi Arabia and the rest of the GCC. Most of the Shiites in Saudi are concentrated in the Eastern Province.
The following figure shows the distribution of GCC Shiites, with most of them living in Saudi Arabia, where over two thirds of Gulf Shiites live.