Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 07/2013

The Forgotten Uprising in Eastern Saudi Arabia

Frederic Wehrey

June 2013

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace


The eastern region of Saudi Arabia has witnessed a deadly cycle of demonstrations, shootings, and detentions for more than two years. While Shia in the east share grievances with the rest of the country, simmering discontent is aggravated by a history of regime discrimination and provincial neglect. To stabilize the region, the regime must address the roots of dissent at both the local and the national levels. Dissent in the Eastern Province traditionally stems from the regime’s sectarian discrimination against Shia and economic neglect and political marginalization of the region. Shia activists in the east call for truly participatory governance, the release of political prisoners, the establishment of an elected consultative council, and the writing of a constitution, among other demands. The regime has responded with a timeworn strategy of handing out economic subsidies, co-opting Shia clerics to dampen the protests, launching a media counteroffensive that inflames sectarianism, and undertaking a campaign of arrests and detentions. The regime’s crackdown has deepened divisions between its traditional interlocutors among older Shia activists and clerics, and networks of impatient youth who have soured on the pace of reform. While the goals of these youth activists are similar to those of their older counterparts, they prefer street protests to petitions.