Iran Plays on Mounting Tension in Saudi Arabia

By James M. Dorsey

This article is also available on the MEI Blog:

Tension over Saudi Arabia’s handling of a visiting Iranian soccer team and the brief arrest in the kingdom of a prominent Shiite cleric have sparked a Saudi-Iranian war of words with Iran warning against a crackdown on Saudi Shiite protesters demanding reform in the kingdom’s oil-rich Eastern Province.

The warning constituted the first Iranian threat again Saudi Arabia in several years despite long-standing tense relations between the two countries in part as a result of Iran’s nuclear program. It comes at a time of concern that anti-government protests in predominantly Shiite Bahrain are spilling over into the Eastern Province, a 45-minute drive across the causeway from Bahrain. Concern about a Bahraini spill over have also compounded fears that weeks of protests in Yemen demanding the departure of embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh potentially could spark unrest among already restive Ismailis in Saudi Arabia’s south-western Jizan and Najran provinces. Saleh and Saudi Arabia have in the past accused Iran of supporting Houthi rebels in Yemen’s north.

The escalation of Saudi-Iranian tension started with a demand by Saudi immigration authorities demanding that Tehran’s Persepolis FC soccer team, Asia’s most popular club, be finger printed and iris scanned upon its March 1, 2011 arrival at Jeddah airport for an Asian championship match against Saudi Arabia’s Al Ittihad, according to Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency. The Persepolis team refused what is standard procedure for all visitors to the kingdom and was held at the airport for eight hours.

The Persepolis incident sparked dismay in Tehran because of the kingdom’s refusal to acknowledge repeated Iranian demands that Saudi Arabia exempt Iranians from finger printing and iris scanning. In response, Iran threatened retaliation and Iranian legislator Seyed Hossein Naqavi, a member of parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, said Al Ittihad would be subjected to the same treatment at Tehran airport when it arrived for its return match against Persepolis.

“As regards the fingerprinting of Persepolis in the Jeddah airport, we will retaliate and fingerprint Al Ittihad of Saudi Arabia. We believe the fingerprinting of Persepolis athletes is a disrespectful act and the move will not remain unanswered,” Naqavi said.

What started as storm in a tea cup has however since escalated into a potential crisis that has further spooked stock exchanges and contributed to oil price hikes with last weekend’s two-day detention of a Saudi cleric, Sheikh Tawfiq al-‘Amir to Hofuf in Al Ahsa province, after he called, according to media reports, for converting Saudi Arabia into a constitutional monarch in a Friday prayer sermon in Al Ahsa in the Eastern Province.

Already spooked by the wind of change sweeping the region that has started to engulf the Gulf with protests not only in Bahrain and Yemen but also in Oman and Kuwait, Al-Amir’s arrest was likely designed to fend off Shiite protests in the Eastern Province that in turn could potentially tap into widespread discontent among Sunni Muslims in the rest of the kingdom. Saudi Shiites have long complained about perceived discrimination.

Instead it has fuelled Shiite anger that exploded into demonstrations in the Eastern Province last weekend and boosted demands in open letters, petitions and Facebook by Saudi intellectuals and youths demanding a release of political prisoners, sweeping reforms and the transformation of Saudi Arabia’s authoritarian monarchical rule into a constitutional monarchy. The demand for a constitutional monarchy builds on similar calls in the wake of the 1990 Gulf war against Iraq by a disparate coalition of Wahhabi clerics, liberal and religious academics, and Shiites that prompted then King Fahd to issue a Basic Law — Saudi Arabia’s first-ever written equivalent of a constitution -- and create a Consultative Assembly whose members are appointed by the king.

In an apparent realization that the kingdom’s rulers could respond with Libyan-style violence if they truly saw their authority threatened, protesters chanted this weekend, “Peaceful, peaceful,” while waving pictures of Shiites they said had been detained unjustly.

The Eastern Province has a long history of protest against perceived Sunni Muslim discrimination dating back to riots in 1982. King Abdullah’s reforms and his opening of a dialogue with the Shiites have failed to address their sense of discrimination, including on the job market. Protesters took to the streets in Awwamiya in 2009 after Saudi police launched a crackdown and search for the Shiite preacher Nimr Nimr, who back then had suggested in a sermon that Shiites could one day seek their own separate state.

Most probably inadvertently, Saudi Arabia fuelled with its inept arrest of Al-‘Amir as well as of two Shiite writers the Islamic republic’s soccer ire and offered Tehran a renewed opportunity to jump onto the protest bandwagon as it has tried to do throughout the crisis. The Saudi leadership “should know that the Saudi people have become vigilant and do not allow the rulers of the country to commit any possible crime against them,” Iranian parliamentarian Mohammed Dehqan, widely regarded as an ally of President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, said in response to the cleric’s arrest, according to Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency.

Dehqan warned that Iran would hold the Saudi government accountable for what he termed its “crimes” against both Shiites and Sunnis. “Saudi Arabia should account for the suppressions of the Shi'ite and Sunni people in the country for numerous years,” Dehqan said, hinting that the kingdom may prove less immune to the regional wave of protests than anticipated. “Considering that the developments in Bahrain and Yemen affect the situation in Saudi Arabia, the country feels grave danger and interferes in the internal affairs of these states,” Dehqan charged.

The Saudi government, by arresting Al-‘Amir, may have walked into a trap. The cleric departed with his call for a constitutional monarchy from his record of usually limiting his demands to calls for greater religious freedom. In doing so, he may well have been seeking arrest as a way to spark protests in the kingdom. His sermon echoed the calls by other segments of Saudi society for protests in the kingdom later this month in demand of a constitutional monarchy in the petitions and on Facebook.

Saudi responses to the demonstrations as well as efforts to placate the population with hand outs and economic gestures suggest that the kingdom’s rulers have learnt little from the wave of protests shaking the region to its core. The government, in response to the protests banned all demonstrations and mobilized security personnel rather than seeking to address widespread concerns and seeking an accommodation with the growing, defuse movement of protest.

The demonstrations in the Eastern Province erupted days after King Abdullah returned to the kingdom from three months abroad for medical treatment bearing hand outs worth $37 billion, targeting Saudis of modest means. The failing effort was intended to insulate the kingdom from the wave of anti-government protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa.

In a further indication of the royal family’s failure to understand the sea change in popular attitudes toward government in the region, the kingdom also celebrated Abdullah’s return by announcing the launch of a new government-owned sports television channel in much the same way that a father brings gifts for his children when returning from a business trip.

The announcement highlighted the increasingly failing use of sports, and particularly soccer, by authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes whose rulers position themselves as father figures and address their subjects as sons and daughters. Soccer par excellence served as a tool for the Middle East’s authoritarian leaders to divert attention from their countries’ political and economic problems. As a result, governments traditionally kept a tight grip on football associations in a bid to prevent the soccer pitch from becoming a rallying point for the expression of pent-up anger and frustration.

That approach has begun to falter as various governments in the region have indefinitely suspended professional league matches to prevent the soccer pitch from become yet another rallying point for protesters. Saudi media in January took the government to task for the kingdom’s dismal performance in the Asian Cup in Qatar. The kingdom fired two coaches within as many weeks during the tournament. Saudi media blamed their team’s performance on the kingdom’s failure to nurture sport talent from a young age. As a result, the government trumpeted the opening last month by Spanish club Real Madrid of the kingdom’s first soccer academy.

The demonstrations in the Eastern Provinces as well as the various petitions and Facebook pages constitute the latest signs of growing unrest in the kingdom. Floods in late January in Jeddah that killed at least four people and the granting of asylum to the ousted Tunisian leader have sparked protests and criticism on newspaper op-ed pages as well as on blogs and in Internet chat rooms. The Jeddah torrents prompted dozens to protest the port city’s poor infrastructure that Saudis say is the reason why floods have repeatedly caused death and destruction as well as prolonged power outages in the Saudi port city. The protest erupted in response to a mass Blackberry message campaign, calling on residents to gather on the city’s main shopping street. Up to 50 protestors are believed to have been arrested during the protest. Floods in 2009 in Jeddah killed 120 people and triggered a rare public debate about the management of public funds and infrastructure defects.

Across Saudi Arabia, the wave of discontent sweeping the region is the topic of conversation[*] in cafes, restaurants, and salons where many greet one another with the words, “u’balna kulna” or “May we all be next.” In imitation of the self-immolation in Tunisia in December that sparked the region’s wave of protests, four men in eastern and southern Saudi Arabia have this year set themselves ablaze. Groups of up to 100 Saudis have gathered in front of municipalities and extensions of the ministries of education and labor to silently express anger at poor standards of living, corruption, unemployment and firm implementation of the kingdom’s Saudization policy that obliges companies to ensure that 30 per cent of their work force consists of Saudi nationals. Saudi Arabia’s unemployment rate is believed to be between 15 and 20 per cent, yet it employs some nine million foreign workers. Some 250 teachers denounced their unemployment.

In an ironic twist, Saudi television repeatedly aired Foreign Minister Saud Al Faisal’s assertion that Ben Ali had been granted asylum to spare the Tunisian people further suffering. Saudi media have also been playing up speeches by Labor Minister Adel al Faqih, focusing on efforts to combat unemployment, price hikes and poverty. In remarks while convalescing abroad after repeated back surgery, King Abdullah, who has been credited with limited efforts at political and economic reform, repositioned himself as the kingdom’s father figure who was seeking to provide prosperity, peace and enhanced rights for men and women alike.

Government-inspired articles in the Saudi press reiterate the Al-Saud’s perpetuation of the tribal tradition of dealing with discontent and subject’s concerns by maintaining an open door policy that allows commoners on a daily basis to petition their rulers. Pro-government experts on Saudi talk shows stress that public protests would constitute an uncivilized attempt at being heard in a country whose rulers are easily accessible, albeit primarily to those with the right connections.

The message to Saudi leaders is clear: mass protests similar to those in the Arab world are avoidable, but the demand for change is not one that stops at their borders. So far, it’s not evident that the message has been received.

* James M. Dorsey, World Politics Review, Thinking the Unthinkable: Is the Gulf Next, February 2, 2011,


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