The quiet war in Saudi Arabia

There are good reasons not only for the media, but for western governments to begin taking an active interest in the ongoing street conflict in Eastern Province

While western powers have been happy to use Saudi Arabia as an ally to ratchet up the pressure on Assad's beleaguered regime in Syria, it has not caught a whiff of the silent crackdown occurring within the kingdom. Since late November the protest movement which was largely snuffed out last spring has returned to the streets in force, largely centered on the oil rich and largely Shia Eastern Province.

The Saudi response was both brutal and predictable. Security forces shot and killed three protesters and wounded many more over several days of crackdowns in the eastern city of Qatif. Clashes continued throughout December as demonstrators battled security forces who routinely utilized live ammunition. In a series of retaliatory raids on the homes and districts of protest sympathizers hundreds were arrested and wounded. The killings along with the continued discrimination and mistreatment of the Shia of the Eastern Province has formed the basis of the current protest movement - a protest movement that has suffered heavily like its neighbour in Bahrain, but with little in the way of a headline.

Today, while attention was focused on the Strait of Hormuz, on Syria, and on the rising tensions in Bahrain, Saudi security forces launched an assault on the city of Awamiyah killing at least one and wounding half a dozen more. Eye witnesses have stated that soldiers on trucks opened fire on demonstrators, hitting many as they fled. The attack bears all the hallmarks of a planned operation with electricity being cut to the area prior to the assault. The area at the time of writing is apparently still under military lock-down and reflects a state of siege with clashes continuing to occur and gunfire being heard.

This attack was almost certainly condoned by the royal family and comes on the heels of a series of indictments against demonstrators and high profile invectives against the protest movement. Despite this attack and others like it, the rumblings and tremors of protest and crackdown show no sign of abatement. Indeed in the past few months they have once again reared their head in the south west in Najran and Jazan, compounded with protests over women’s rights in Riyadh and Buraydah.

These protests bear all the hallmarks of a movement which could coalesce and burst anew from the ashes of the disjointed and largely suppressed protests of last spring. They also come at an extremely troubling time for the kingdom. The death of Crown Prince Sultan highlighted the geriatric character of the upper echelons of the ruling family, and the potential uncertainty and disquiet surrounding the issue of succession. Meanwhile, continuing tensions in the Strait of Hormuz and rising furor on the streets of Bahrain open up the risk of unrest spreading to the kingdom in a domino effect. Indeed the extremely aggressive Saudi position on Bahrain and the continued quartering of troops in the tiny island monarchy has a direct relationship to their fears of domestic instability. The possibility of Saudi Shia rallying on behalf of their co-religionists in Bahrain, or vice versa is a looming threat that the Saudis are taking great pains to neutralize.

Though the protests currently centre on a single province, the Eastern Province is home to the majority of Saudi energy reserves, terminals, and processing facilities. Disruption and upheaval in this province has a disproportionate impact on Saudi Arabia. A protracted and visible uprising would not only weaken the Saudi government internally but could have a tumultuous impact on the global energy market. This is all the more reason for not only the media, but for western governments to begin taking an active interest in the ongoing street conflict.

Saudi rulers certainly understand the threat posed by the protesters and the risk of an expanding movement: their actions are a testament to that fact. So why is the world’s media apparently incapable of recognizing the same thing? Arab media has been noticeably silent, with the two largest Arab media entities the Saudi-owned al-Arabiya and the Qatari-owned al-Jazeera having said almost nothing. However there is little excuse for western media. Saudi Arabia is probably America's most important Arab ally, the world’s most important single energy node, and one of the most influential countries in the region. It's also experiencing its worst domestic upheavals since its rebellions of the early 1980's. Taken in a vacuum this is a significant news story. When set against the context of the unfolding drama in the Gulf and the wider contours of the Arab Spring, it is incredible.

The past year was a bad one for Saudi Arabia: the coming year augurs to be even worse. The time has come to slice through the veil Saudi Arabia has kept around its crackdown and recognize that the Arab Spring at least in limited form has hit the kingdom. What comes next is difficult to say, but with the rapidity of change that the Arab Spring has introduced us to, it would be wise to pay close attention to the warning signs as they appear. It is entirely possible that we will see a very, very, warm spring in Saudi Arabia.

About the author

Joshua Jacobs is a Gulf Policy Analyst and published columnist at the Institute for Gulf Affairs. Joshua has published and co-authored papers on Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Oman, with a special emphasis and expertise on Gulf security issues and energy policy. His analyses have been featured on domestic media outlets in North Africa and the Middle East, such as the nascent post-Arab Spring Tunisia TV. Joshua studied International Politics at American University with a concentration in US foreign policy and the Middle East.