Gunfights in Saudi Oil Province Show Spread of Iran Tensions

Armored anti-riot vehicles cluster outside the police station in Awwamiya in Saudi Arabia’s oil-producing eastern region, where unrest is turning violent.

“We have enough police force to deal with any criminal or prohibited situation,” says Brigadier-General Yousef al-Qahtani as he drives through the town. In nearby al-Qatif, graffiti scrawled on a cemetery wall criticizes the Al Saud family, founders of the kingdom eight decades ago, and calls for the removal of their fellow Sunni Muslim monarchs in Bahrain. Black Shiite flags adorn religious centers in the back-alleys.

Clashes between police and armed Shiite protesters in the two towns have intensified since October, when 11 police were injured in an attack. Since then, seven Shiites have been killed by security forces, according to figures provided by Saudi Arabia’s Human Rights First Society.

It’s in such places that tensions between the Gulf’s Sunni nations and Shiite-led Iran may spark violence inside Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter. Shiites here have cultural and family ties with Iran, and also with Bahrain, where Saudi troops helped crush Shiite-led protests that broke out a year ago today. Saudi authorities accuse Iran, which is under growing western pressure to back down over its nuclear program, of stirring up unrest in both cases.

‘Much Bigger Fire’

“This is another one of those possible flashpoints in the region that could become a much bigger fire if it is not contained early on,” Paul Sullivan, a political scientist specializing in Middle East security at Georgetown University in Washington, said in an e-mail.

After two Shiites were shot dead in gun battles in Awwamiya and al-Qatif last week, the cost of Saudi Arabia’s credit default swaps jumped 2 percent to 131.8, before retreating to 129.2 yesterday. They reached a two-and-a-half-year high last month as Iranian threats to block the Strait of Hormuz, in response to a planned western oil embargo, stoked concerns of conflict in a region that supplies a fifth of the world’s crude.

Most of that comes from Saudi Arabia, and the biggest Saudi oil fields are in the Eastern Province, home to most of the Saudi Shiite population. It’s the second-largest Shiite community in the Gulf after Iraq’s, comprising between 10 and 15 percent of the total of 19 million Saudi nationals, according to the U.S. State Department.

Iran denies charges of interference by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations, and accuses their Sunni rulers of discriminating against Shiites.

Holy Sites

In Bahrain, linked to eastern Saudi Arabia’s Shiite regions by a 16-mile (26-kilometer) causeway, protests have also been escalating, in the run-up to today’s anniversary.

Yesterday, Shiite-led opposition groups accused the security forces of attacking peaceful demonstrations with teargas and stun grenades, while the Interior Ministry said protesters hurled rocks and set fire to private property. Twenty-five people were arrested early today on their way to a rally and police stormed houses suspected of harboring protesters, said Mohammed al-Maskati, president of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights.

Saudi Arabia largely escaped the unrest that spread across the Arab world last year, though there were protests in Awwamiya, al-Qatif and other eastern towns. Shiite cleric Tawfiq al-Amir was arrested after he called for a constitutional monarchy and equal rights.

Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran date back to Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini accused Saudi rulers of corruption and argued that the holy sites of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia shouldn’t be under a single country’s guardianship. In December, the U.S. agreed to sell Saudi Arabia 84 F-15 fighter jets in a $29.4 billion deal seen as bolstering defenses against Iran.

‘Card They Can Use’

“To ask if Iran has an interest in destabilizing Saudi Arabia, yes they do,” said Khalid al-Dakhil, a political science professor at King Saud University in Riyadh, in a phone interview. “It is a card they can use to pressure the Saudis.”

In al-Qatif, the graffiti shows Shiite resentment at their perceived exclusion from the country’s wealth. “Where is the oil money?” one slogan asks. Smashed street lights and road signs attest to recent violence in the Gulf city, where wooden dhow boats anchor and families picnic as vehicles carrying riot police speed along the coast road.

The U.S. State Department noted in a human-rights report on Saudi Arabia published in 2009 that Shiites in the kingdom face “significant political, economic, legal, social and religious discrimination condoned by the government.”

Job Discrimination

Saudi Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh described practices during the Ashoura festival, a day of mourning for Shiite Muslims, as “against Islamic law” in an article published in Al-Watan newspaper on Dec. 3.

Seventy-four students, mainly Shiites, from the Jubail Industrial College north of al-Qatif called on the government to penalize companies that discriminate in hiring, Safwa News reported on Feb. 3. Their petition criticized Saudi Arabian Mining Co., the kingdom’s largest miner, for excluding 60 Shiite students from an employment program. Calls to the company’s communications office weren’t answered yesterday.

Shiite leaders held meetings with the late King Fahd in 1993 and were promised measures to address the region’s grievances. The Eastern Province is benefitting from King Abdullah’s $130 billion spending pledges last year, including a new stadium and roads in Awwamiya.

“The majority of people in Qatif, while they do have grievances and quite legitimate demands, they don’t believe it is the right way to alleviate their grievances through violence,” al-Dakhil said.

First Shootings

Violence, though, has been increasing since October when security forces were fired upon from side streets of Awwamiya. Gun battles between police and demonstrators broke out there and in Qatif on Feb. 9 and 10.

“We never experienced shooting at the police before,” Colonel Abdullah Aseeri, the police chief of al-Qatif, said in an interview. Brigadier General Yousef, an almost 30-year veteran with the Interior Ministry, said the use of weapons and “endangering the lives and safety of citizens is a red line.”

Security forces are displaying more restraint than they have in the past in their response to protests, said Ibrahim al-Mugaiteeb, president of the Human Rights First Society. “A lot of demonstrations happen without a police crackdown,” he said.

Loyalty Pledge

A delegation of Shiite Muslim scholars and clerics from al-Qatif condemned clashes in November that left four people dead and nine injured, Al-Yaum newspaper reported. They also pledged loyalty to the Al Saud leadership.

Such community elders, seeking to soothe tensions, don’t have the traction they used to have, said Tawfiq al-Saif, a prominent Shiite cleric. Young Saudi Shiites, like their contemporaries elsewhere in the Arab world, are demanding change, he said.

“There is the sense of being marginalized in the country among the Shiite young,” al-Saif said. “The younger generation feels that it is no longer the role of the leaders or elders to solve their problems. People want promises fulfilled.”

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