TSC IntelBrief: Saudi Arabia and the Ghosts of Sheikh Nimr
Bottom Line Up Front:
• Externally, Saudi Arabia has made several recent moves to improve relations with some elements within Shi’a-majority Iraq.
• Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman hosted Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in late July, an unexpected visit with unclear near- and long-term impacts.
• Internally, Riyadh is strongly cracking down on the Shi’a minority in the eastern region of Qatif.
• Riyadh is destroying some neighborhoods in Awamiyah, birthplace of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, an influential Shia cleric executed in January 2016.
The past year of tensions and machinations within the Saudi royal family—with the elevation of now-Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the reported house arrest of former-Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef—continue to be felt both internally and externally. While a sense of reality overshadows the kingdom in terms of succession and management, the government’s policies continue to cause ripples of instability far from Riyadh.
Externally, several Saudi-led campaigns are stalemated. The war in Yemen continues to defy geopolitical resolution while the humanitarian crisis it caused is worsening daily. The abysmal relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran continue to frame almost every challenge and conflict in the region, with little hope for improvement. The Saudi-led bloc against Qatar has turned into a simmering saga of embarrassing social media campaigns and posturing, leading to serious economic and regional consequences.
Saudi Arabia has taken some steps to improve relations with its Shi’a-majority neighbor of Iraq. In late July, Crown Prince Salman hosted the Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a rather unexpected move. Al-Sadr has become more of an Iraqi nationalist over the last several years, and Riyadh will likely want to take the opportunity to encourage a sense of Arab Shi’ism, as opposed to an Iranian-influenced one. Al-Sadr’s was not the only high-level visit between the two countries; Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi visited Riyadh and the Saudi Foreign Minister visited Baghdad. The Arar border crossing between the two countries, which had been closed since the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, is being re-opened, a significant sign of progress in terms of trade, as well as diplomacy.
Internally, Riyadh is dealing—in somewhat high-profile and heavy-handed fashion—with what it calls a persistent extremist hotbed in the eastern region of Qatif, the oil-rich part of the kingdom with a sizable Shi’a population in a country that is 85 percent Sunni. The tensions between the government and Qatif are long-standing. The country’s only hint of serious unrest during the Arab Spring movements (and for several years after) occurred in the Qatif region. The town of al-Awamiyah, the birthplace of the influential Shi’a cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, is ground zero for the current tensions.
The Saudi government executed Sheikh Nimr on January 2, 2016, sparking major protests in the region and beyond. Nimr had been sentenced to death in 2014 for terrorism charges associated with al-Qaeda in 2003. His execution remains a significant source of outrage between the region’s Shi’a population and the Saudi royal family. In al-Awamiyah, the government is fighting entrenched pockets of violent opposition but is doing so in a manner that the U.N. and others have denounced as collective punishment. Since May, Saudi forces have been leveling parts of a district in al-Awamiyah called Musawara, in what it calls a planned revitalization project, although some human rights groups call it a forced demographic upheaval. Pictures from al-Awamiyah show massive damage to city blocks after three months of sporadic but intense fighting and demolishment. Such an operation risks creating more intense and long-term opposition than it quells in the short term. Any external moves the Saudi government makes to improve its relations with Shi’a Iraq in an effort to blunt Iran will be fruitless if its internal tensions with its own people worsen. When a country like Saudi Arabia is so narrowly focused on stability, yet at such odds with its own Shi’a minority population, the result inevitably will be persistent instability.
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