Abstract: With Saudi Arabia now firmly in the Islamic State’s crosshairs, concern over sectarian tensions in the kingdom’s volatile Eastern Province is rapidly increasing. The Islamic State has initiated a campaign of violence and terrorism targeting Saudi Shi`a to create and take advantage of worsening relations between Sunnis and Shi`a. The group has also increasingly targeted Saudi security forces. This apparent shift may represent an attempt to exact revenge against the monarchy over its role in organizing a multinational military coalition to contain and ultimately destroy it. It may also reflect the Islamic State’s growing confidence in its capacity to organize and sustain a violent campaign against the monarch. Meanwhile, the kingdom’s execution of dissident Shi`a cleric Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr in January has aggravated an already incendiary situation. Taken together, these developments portend a period of potentially unprecedented instability in the foreseeable future.

Saudi Arabia’s execution of influential dissident Shi`a cleric Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr in January has had major repercussions for the kingdom’s domestic and regional standing. A longtime critic of the Saudi royal family, the late al-Nimr evolved into a vocal advocate for Saudi Arabia’s marginalized Shi`a minority and a symbol of defiance and resistance to the political and religious legitimacy commanded by the kingdom. Al-Nimr’s execution has cast light on Saudi Arabia’s fractious internal sectarian dynamics and its contentious relationship with Iran. It has also drawn attention to the troubled disposition of Saudi Arabia’s Shi`a minority and the circumstances they endure in the kingdom’s Eastern Province.

A Targeted Minority
Saudi Arabia’s Shi`a are concentrated in the oases of Qatif and al-Hasa in Eastern Province where they comprise a majority.[a] Eastern Province is the kingdom’s largest province in geographical terms and the home of most of its crude oil production capacity.[b] Multiple researchers[1] have found that Shi`a in Saudi Arabia are often subject to widespread religious prejudice that is a byproduct of the austere Wahhabist strain of Sunni Islam that is promulgated by Saudi clerics. This is the case even as the kingdom’s political establishment touts its efforts to improve the position of Shi`a in Saudi society in numerous contexts.[c] Some Saudi clerics go so far as labeling them heretical, apostate, and idolatrous.[d] They also contend with disproportionately higher levels of poverty and underdevelopment and complain of other socioeconomic inequalities relative to the Sunni majority.[2]

Al-Nimr’s execution occurred against the backdrop of an escalating terrorist offensive by the self-proclaimed Islamic State within Saudi Arabia’s borders. As part of its broader military and ideological campaign to expand the boundaries of its self-styled caliphate, the Islamic State’s commander and self-professed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, announced in an audio statement in November 2014 the Islamic State’s intention to target the Saudi royal family. He also proclaimed the creation of an operational presence within the kingdom comprised of Saudis who had sworn allegiance to its cause.[3] Al-Baghdadi’s recorded missive included an explicit threat against the kingdom’s Shi`a minority and a directive to target them alongside others whom he called polytheists as a prelude to the cleansing of the Arabian Peninsula of its Shi`a presence and eventual attacks against the royal family itself.[4]

The Islamic State’s intentions toward Saudi Arabia were elaborated upon further in releases of the fifth and 13th editions of Dabiq, its official magazine, in November 2014[5] and January 2016,[6] respectively. A series of high-profile terrorist attacks targeting Shi`a houses of worship and religious gatherings and other threatening incidents in Eastern Province since 2015 appear to indicate that al-Baghdadi’s instructions have been operationalized. Saudi security forces have reportedly disrupted numerous other plots implicating the Islamic State in possible attacks across the country. These include the purported dismantling of an operational cell referred to as Jund al-Balad al-Haramein (Soldiers of the Land of the Two Holy Places) that Saudi authorities have connected to the Islamic State.[7] The Islamic State has also claimed responsibility for the April 5 assassination of a police colonel in the town of al-Dawadmi, located about 124 miles west of the capital Riyadh.[e] It also took credit for an April 4 improvised explosive device attack targeting a police station in the town of al-Dilam about 60 miles south of Riyadh.[8] The February 17 murder of a member of the kingdom’s Special Emergency Force, a unit analogous in function to U.S. Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) formations, in al-Qassim Province by six members of his own family who had reportedly pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, is another example of the Islamic State’s reach in Saudi society.[f] The Islamic State also took credit for the suicide bombing on August 6, 2015, that targeted Saudi security forces in a Sunni mosque in Abha in the southwestern Asir Province near the Saudi-Yemeni border.[9]

The noticeable uptick in attacks targeting Saudi security forces may signal efforts by the Islamic State to retaliate against the kingdom for its efforts to organize a multinational military coalition against it. It may also be suggestive of the extent of the Islamic State’s operational capacity in Saudi Arabia. In this regard, the group may feel that it has achieved a sufficient operational capacity that would allow it to launch and maintain an armed campaign well beyond Eastern Province. Saudi authorities also claim to have disrupted numerous plots by the Islamic State to execute attacks against Shi`a Muslims and Shi`a-affiliated locations.

Nevertheless, it has been the Shi`a-dominated Eastern Province that has bared the brunt of the Islamic State’s attacks.[10] Some Shi`a believe that some Saudi police have turned a blind eye to the Islamic State’s campaign against them.[11] The pejorative label rafidah (rejectionists) and similar derogatory refrains that are frequently ascribed to Shi`a believers by some Saudi religious scholars and Saudi-owned media and other information outlets are mirrored in the hardline Salafist worldview promoted by the Islamic State. It can be deduced the latter enjoys sympathy among a not insignificant segment of Saudi society given the relatively high numbers of Saudis who have joined the Islamic State.[12] Saudi Arabia’s track record of promoting Wahhabist and other Salafist belief systems throughout the broader Middle East and Islamic world has represented a pillar of its foreign policy and a means by which to project its influence, especially in the context of its rivalry with Iran, and has also contributed to Shi`a misgivings regarding the kingdom’s intentions.[13]

A convergence of overlapping factors that encompass social, political, economic, and security trends as well as broader regional diplomatic and geopolitical currents are contributing to a climate of heightened tensions in Saudi Arabia. Eastern Province has long been a locus of political agitation and grassroots opposition to the monarchy, with Shi`a protesters on the forefront of the largest—albeit widely unnoticed—demonstrations ever witnessed in the kingdom.[14][g] The introduction of the Islamic State into the equation has amplified the region’s criticality to the course of developments in Saudi Arabia. Much like its antecedents al-Qa`ida in Iraq and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State demonstrates with its pattern of attacks a clear predilection for sowing sectarian strife and exploiting existing fault lines in Saudi society, most notably between Sunni and Shi`a believers, in the hope of inciting a civil war to undermine and ultimately destroy the monarchy. Central to the Islamic State’s strategy is to provoke a retaliatory response by Shi`a against Sunnis, a prospect that would exacerbate an already combustible domestic scenario. When combined with Saudi Arabia’s entrenched antagonism toward its Shi`a subjects, Eastern Province’s human geography provides the Islamic State with a fertile landscape to nurture and expand its campaign.[h]

The Shi`a Question
It is difficult to misinterpret the political optics and symbolism surrounding al-Nimr’s execution. The circumstances surrounding al-Nimr’s arrest, trial, subsequent conviction, and death sentence had drawn global attention from international human rights and other activist bodies.[15] The events leading to al-Nimr’s execution remain shrouded in mystery. Al-Nimr was shot and arrested in July 2012 near his hometown of al-Awamiyah in Eastern Province’s Qatif Governorate for his alleged role in confronting Saudi security forces during an operation to apprehend a wanted suspect.[i] It has been suggested it was al-Nimr’s activism on behalf of Saudi Shi`a and his public denunciations of the royal family combined with his growing popularity, especially among Shi`a youth, that sealed his fate.[j] Al-Nimr’s 2009 declaration that Eastern Province should contemplate secession if the status of Shi`a does not improve catalyzed the royal family’s concerns about the prospect of an internal rebellion and the potential for outside intervention by Iran.[k] This is the case despite the late cleric’s insistence that the Shi`a struggle in the kingdom is rooted in domestic rather than regional and geopolitical issues.[16] Al-Nimr’s strong statements were broadcast following a period of heightened tensions sparked by clashes between Shi`a pilgrims and Saudi security forces and members of the Commission of the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice—Saudi Arabia’s religious police—at the Baqi Cemetery in Medina.[17]

The role played by Saudi Arabia’s Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) in the handling of al-Nimr’s case warrants closer consideration. Established in 2008, the SCC is charged with prosecuting criminal cases involving terrorism.[18] Al-Nimr was executed among 47 others on a battery of terrorism-related charges that represented the kingdom’s largest mass execution since 1980.[l] Three other Shi`a activists were executed along with al-Nimr. The remaining 43 individuals included dozens of Saudis linked to numerous al-Qa`ida terrorist attacks and other terrorism-related activities in the kingdom between 2003 and 2006.[m] The inclusion of al-Nimr among known al-Qa`ida members, including militants who have targeted U.S. and foreign interests and personnel in Saudi Arabia, in essence, likens the late cleric to some of the kingdom’s most dangerous and violent opponents. More importantly, it signals Saudi Arabia’s determination to root out all forms of domestic political dissent. Reformist currents that challenge the authority of the monarchy and call for a more participatory and democratic form of governance appear to be seen by some key figures in the Saudi power structure as an existential threat.

The fallout that followed al-Nimr’s execution was swift. International human rights organizations strongly condemned Saudi Arabia’s decision to proceed with the execution.[19] Shi`a protesters took to the streets across Eastern Province, prompting a violent crackdown and increasing repression across the region.[20] Protests in solidarity with the late al-Nimr erupted around the region. Iranian demonstrators ransacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran and consulate in Mashhad, prompting Saudi Arabia to cut ties with Iran.[21] Lebanese Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah lambasted Saudi Arabia for its actions.[22] Leading Iraqi Shi`a cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani also admonished the kingdom while fellow Iraqi Shi`a leader Moqtada al-Sadr appealed for Iraqi Shi`a to organize protests.[23] In Iraq the Shi`a-dominated al-Hashad al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Committees), a government-sponsored paramilitary detachment that was organized to augment regular Iraqi security forces in its counterterrorism and counterinsurgency campaign against the Islamic State, have taken notice of what they see as Saudi Arabia’s complicity in the plight of their coreligionists.[24] Shi`a demonstrators took to the streets in Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan, and Indian-controlled Kashmir in solidarity with the executed cleric.[25] U.S. and European cities also witnessed protests in solidarity with al-Nimr.[26]

It is impossible to detach Saudi Arabia’s treatment of al-Nimr and its approach toward its Shi`a community without accounting for the kingdom’s rivalry with Iran and broader regional geopolitical trends. There appears to be a tendency among key figures in Saudi Arabia’s power structure to view the Shi`a as a potentially disloyal fifth column and any expressions of political dissent in Eastern Province as a vehicle of an Iranian-led expansionist campaign.[27] This rivalry is often explained through a lens of sectarianism. In this interpretation, Saudi Arabia views Shi`a Iran as a hostile threat with aspirations of regional hegemony.[n] In reality, the source of acrimony is rooted in traditional geopolitical disputes.[o] Saudi Arabia accused al-Nimr of advocating for the implementation of Wilayet al-Faqih (Guardianship of the Jurisprudent), the revolutionary style of clerical rule promoted by the Ayatollah Khomeini that served as the foundation of the 1979 Iranian Revolution.[p] For Saudi Arabia, al-Nimr’s decade-long stay in Iran as a seminary student in Qom beginning in 1979 and later travels to Iran following a crackdown against Shi`a in the 1990s hardened its opinion toward the dissident cleric.[q]

The saga surrounding the late al-Nimr is not over. The late cleric’s 22-year-old nephew, Ali Baqir Muhammed al-Nimr, is also in custody and faces execution after being arrested as a teenager in 2012 for participating in anti-government and pro-democracy protests between 2011 and 2012 during the wave of popular unrest that gripped the wider Arab world.[r]

Enter the Islamic State
The Islamic State’s enmity toward the Saudi royal family is without question. The kingdom’s centrality to its overall campaign is likewise apparent in its symbology, ideology, and military strategy.[28] In the historical context of radical Islamist militancy, the Islamic State’s opposition to the Saudi royal family is not unique. Like its ideological progenitor al-Qa`ida, the Islamic State derives its opposition to Saudi Arabia from what it sees as the kingdom’s corruption, despotism, and strategic relationship with the United States that are seen as personifying its existence. The Islamic State does not acknowledge Saudi Arabia’s position as the custodian of the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina and considers any religious legitimacy decreed by the royal family as a blasphemy. In its view, Saudi Arabia acts as a proxy of the United States and its predatory agenda toward the Middle East and greater Islamic world. Much like al-Qa`ida, the Islamic State eschews direct references to Saudi Arabia in favor of Balad al-Haramein (Land of the Two Holy Places) as a sign of its contempt toward the royal family. The Islamic State’s reference to the al-Saloul—a pejorative twist of the al-Saud namesake—in its discourse is further evidence of the depths of its animosity toward the royal family.[s] Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth and the strategic relevance to the global economy—Saudi Arabia is the world’s biggest exporter of crude oil and second-largest oil producer—is also not lost on the Islamic State.

While it has singled out the royal family in its public and written discourse, in tangible operational terms, the Islamic State has concentrated its efforts on attacking and killing Shi`a in Eastern Province. As its campaign continues to escalate, the Islamic State may eventually leverage the sizeable pool of Saudi volunteers who have traveled to major jihadist battlefields such as Iraq and Syria. Just as important, Saudi foreign fighters have distinguished themselves on the battlefield in positions of leadership as well as a wellspring of suicide bombers.[29] While reliable estimates of the numbers of Saudis who may have returned to the kingdom are difficult to pinpoint, there is a wide body of evidence to suggest that Saudis are among the most widely represented foreign fighter cohorts in Syria and Iraq.[t] The potential return of battle-hardened and tactically proficient fighters to the kingdom from warzones such as Syria and Iraq, regardless of their prior organizational affiliations, enhances the Islamic State’s potential recruiting pool. The return of Saudi volunteers who traveled to Iraq to join the insurgency against the United States were integral to al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula’s 2003-2006 campaign against the kingdom.[30] Saudi Arabia will likely be confronted with a similar challenge down the line.

The Islamic State is implicated in a number of terrorist attacks targeting Shi`a mosques and affiliated targets in Eastern Province. An accurate picture of the Islamic State’s operational presence within the kingdom is hard to discern. In accordance with its wilayat (province) model of fostering and recognizing discontinuous centers of influence and authority in areas and among communities where it has gained a foothold, three distinct operational nodes representing the Islamic State have declared their existence in Saudi Arabia: Wilayat al-Najd (Najd Province), Wilayat al-Hijaz (Hijaz Province), and Wilayat Bahrain (Bahrain Province).[u]

On November 4, 2014, three unidentified masked shooters targeted a group of Shi`a men in the town of al-Salwah, in Eastern Province’s al-Hasa Governorate, killing five. The attack occurred as Shi`a believers marked Ashoura, the occasion marking the death of Imam Hussein, the Prophet Muhammed’s grandson, at the Battle of Karbala.[31] The Islamic State claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing on May 22, 2015, targeting the Imam Ali mosque during Friday prayers in the village of al-Qadeeh in Eastern Province’s Qatif Governorate. The attack, which killed 21 and injured over 80 others, represented the first suicide bombing targeting a Shi`a mosque in Saudi Arabia.[32] The Islamic State claimed responsibility for an October 2015 suicide bombing against the Ismaili al-Mashad Mosque in the southwestern city of Najran in the eponymous province near the Saudi-Yemeni border that left two worshippers dead and over 10 wounded. The alleged attacker, Abu Ishaq Jizani, is reported to have been associated with the Islamic State’s Wilayat al-Hijaz faction.[33] As a branch of Shi`ism, Ismailis have drawn the ire of the Islamic State and other violent Salafist militants throughout the greater Middle East. The Islamic State’s Wilayat Najd branch reiterated its commitment to the expulsion of Shi`a from the Arabian Peninsula in an audio message issued in October 2015. In doing so, the message drew attention to the purported crimes committed by the Shi`a, al-Nimr’s alleged secessionist ambitions, and apparent efforts by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states to achieve an understanding with Iran.[34]

In addition to their terrorist campaign inside Saudi Arabia, Saudi-based Islamic State operatives have been implicated in attacks targeting Shi`a outside of the kingdom. The Islamic State’s Wilayat al-Najd faction claimed responsibility for the June 2015 suicide bombing against the Imam Sadiq Mosque in Kuwait City’s Sawaber District. The attack, which occurred during Friday prayers in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, left 28 dead and over 200 injured, and was executed by Saudi citizen Fahad Suleiman al-Gabbaa. Al-Gabbaa is reported to have flown to Kuwait only hours before executing his attack.[35]

The spate of attacks targeting Shi`a believers and houses of worship in Eastern Province coupled with local sentiment that the regime has turned a blind eye to the sectarian-inspired attacks against them has catalyzed the community to action. Saudi Shi`a community leaders have organized numerous self-defense committees to protect Shi`a houses of worship and other locations.[36] The shooting deaths of two Saudi police officers in Eastern Province by unidentified gunmen has pointed to the possibility that the utility of violent resistance against the royal family may be gaining currency among some segments of the Shi`a community.[37]

With Saudi Arabia now firmly in the Islamic State’s crosshairs, concern over sectarian tensions in the kingdom’s volatile Eastern Province is rapidly increasing. The recent rash of attacks targeting Saudi security forces suggests that the Islamic State is intensifying its campaign in the kingdom. Nevertheless, the scale and scope of its operations targeting Shi`a in Eastern Province indicates that the Islamic State will continue to prioritize the targeting and killing of Shi`a, including civilians, in its campaign to destabilize and eventually destroy the Saudi monarchy.

It is worth noting that the recent expansion of operations by the Islamic State against targets outside of Eastern Province has involved small-scale operations directed specifically against Saudi security forces in contrast to its apparent emphasis on striking soft civilian targets such as Shi`a mosques and public gatherings of Shi`a worshippers. While the Islamic State has not shied away from attacking and killing Sunni civilians in other theaters, this targeting strategy may be designed to limit Sunni civilian deaths in the kingdom in order to minimize any potential repercussions from the Sunni majority it seeks to cultivate. Taken together, these developments portend a period of potentially unprecedented instability in the foreseeable future. At the same time, the authoritarian model that typifies the monarchy is firmly entrenched and resilient, even as it contends with an array of domestic and regional concerns and unprecedented economic troubles stemming from low oil prices and declining foreign exchange reserves. Despite this reality, the Islamic State will nevertheless continue to set its sights, however unrealistic, on toppling the royal family.

Chris Zambelis is a senior analyst focusing on the Middle East for Helios Global, a risk management group based in the Washington, D.C., area. The analysis expressed here is the author’s alone and does not necessarily reflect the position of Helios Global.

Substantive Notes
[a] Saudi Arabia’s Shi`a population is generally estimated at 10-15 percent of its total population of around 31.5 million. “Saudi Arabia’s Population Grows by 2.4 Percent,” Al-Arabiya, February 6, 2016.

[b] The strategic significance of Eastern Province to the economy of Saudi Arabia—the world’s largest oil exporter and second-largest source of proven oil reserves—cannot be overstated. Yet Eastern Province’s importance goes beyond oil. For example, Saudi Arabia has moved to assess unconventional gas potential in Eastern Province. See “Saudi Aramco Says Jafura Unconventional Gas Promising,” Reuters, March 30, 2016. Eastern Province is also a vital industrial hub. It is home to Jubail Industrial City, which is counted as both the largest industrial city in the Middle East and among the world’s largest industrial cities. Overall, economic activity in Eastern Province accounts for approximately 60 percent of Saudi Arabia’s total GDP. Notably, Saudi Arabia has always touted Eastern Province as an ideal and lucrative investment location. See Dr. Reza Fathollahzadeh Aghdam, “Why Invest in Eastern Province?” Asharqia Chamber, 2008; “Everything You Need to Know About Eastern Province,” Asharqia Chamber.

[c] For example, the kingdom has drawn attention to its elevation of Shi`a to prominent positions in the economic sector, including the critical oil industry and other influencial sectors such as banking. See Mansour Alnogaidan, “Nimr al-Nimr, Political Violence, and the Future of Saudi Shi`a,” American Interest, January 6, 2016.

[d] Prominent Saudi cleric Saffar al-Hawali is among the most vocal members of Saudi Arabia’s clerical establishment when it comes to attacking the Shi`a faith in general and Saudi Arabia’s Shi`a minority in particular. For examples of al-Hawali’s anti-Shi`a invective and similar discourse from other Saudi clerics, see Vali Nasr, The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007), pp. 245-247. See also Raihan Ismail, “The Shi’a Question in Saudi Arabia,” Middle East Institute, June 26, 2015, and “Saudi Arabia’s clerics condemn IS but preach intolerance,” Reuters, September 10, 2014.

[e] The alleged assailants posted video footage of the incident online. Abdullah al-Shiri and Aya Batrawy, “Islamic State Claims it is Behind Killing of Saudi Policeman,” Associated Press, April 5, 2016.

[f] The alleged assailants posted video footage of the incident online. “Al-Arabiya Net Reveals How Daesh Members Lured Their Relative in Saudi Arabia,” Al-Arabiya, February 27, 2016.

[g] It is worth noting that Eastern Province’s position as a historical center of political activism and dissent extends beyond expressions of Shi`a identity. For example, Eastern Province was also a center of various pan-Arab nationalist-, Nasserist-, Baathist-, labor, and communist-led mobilization currents against the monarchy. For more background, see Toby Matthiesen, “Migration, Minorities, and Radical Networks: Labour Movements and Opposition Groups in Saudi Arabia, 1950-1975,” International Review of Social History 59:3 (Autumn 2014), pp. 473-504.

[h] While the Islamic State’s influence and presence continues to expand in Saudi Arabia, the kingdom remains in the crosshairs of al-Qa`ida and its Yemen-based affiliate, al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula. Meanwhile, the Islamic State has also gained an operational foothold in Yemen, further entrenching its position on the Arabian Peninsula. For more background, see Gregory D. Johnsen, “Al-Qa’ida and the Islamic State Benefit as Yemen War Drags On,” CTC Sentinel 9:1 (2016).

[i] Saudi authorities also arrested and detained al-Nimr briefly in 2004 and again in 2006. According to human rights groups, al-Nimr appeared to have been tortured during his detention. Mark Townsend, “Sheikh al-Nimr: Shia Cleric Was a Thorn in Saudi Regime’s Side,” Guardian, January 2, 2016. Numerous conflicting accounts regarding the events leading up to al-Nimr’s 2012 arrest abound. For more details, see “Fact Check: The Truth About Shaykh Nimr al-Nimr,” Jadaliyya, January 5, 2016. For more background surrounding al-Nimr’s most recent arrest, see Nabih Bulos, “Who Was Sheik Nimr al-Nimr? A Look at the Man Whose Execution Rocked the Middle East,” Los Angeles Times, January 5, 2016.

[j] Despite al-Nimr’s unquestioned influence in Eastern Province, Sheikh Hassan al-Saffar, the founder of the Shi`a Islamic Reform Movement, is widely regarded as commanding the largest following among Saudi Shi`a. Al-Nimr and al-Saffar draw from the same ideological origins, namely, the teachings of Ayatollah Muhammed Husseini Shirazi, an Iraqi-Iranian cleric whose influence extends to Shi`a believers throughout the Middle East. Inspired by the Iranian Revolution, al-Shirazi’s teachings encouraged a transnational Shi`a activist current that prompted al-Saffar to organize Shi`a in Qatif and al-Hasa to rise up against the monarchy in 1979-1980. This resulted in a concomitant crackdown by the kingdom that eventually forced al-Saffar, al-Nimr, and other prominent Shi`a clerics and activists into exile. The 1979-1980 uprising in Qatif and al-Hasa continues to shape Saudi Arabia’s calculus toward its Shi`a minority and al-Nimr’s potential as an organizer of grassroots opposition. Despite their common ideological origins, al-Saffar and al-Nimr eventually adopted different approaches to their activism on behalf of the kingdom’s Shi`a. For example, al-Saffar and other clerical leaders and activists who organized in opposition to the monarchy eventually agreed to Saudi Arabia’s offer of an amnesty in return for their commitment to abandon opposition activities. Al-Saffar has since promoted a quietist and overall accommodationist position as part of his engagement with the kingdom. In contrast, al-Nimr opposed any reconciliation with the monarchy, leading to a wider ideological split between followers of Shirazi. For historical context on al-Saffar’s Shi`a Islamic Reform Movement, see Mamoun Fandy, Saudi Arabia and the Politics of Dissent (New York, NY: Palgrave, 1999), pp. 195-228. See also Frederic M. Wehrey, Sectarian Politics in the Gulf: From the Iraq War to the Arab Uprisings (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2014), pp. 139. For more background on the Shirazi movement, see Toby Matthiesen, “The World’s Most Misunderstood Martyr,” Foreign Policy, January 8, 2016. For details on the different competing ideological currents derived from Shirazi, see Haytham Mouzahem, “Saudi Arabia Clamps Down on Dissent,” Al-Monitor, May 13, 2013.

[k] Al-Nimr’s family pedigree has also likely informed the monarchy’s approach to the late cleric. For example, al-Nimr’s grandfather led a revolt against the House of Saud in 1929-1930 after it had claimed dominion over eastern parts of the Arabia. See “After the Execution: The Kingdom’s Shi`a are Angry,” Economist, March 19, 2016.

[l] Saudi Arabia executed 63 militants associated with the violent seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca led by Juhayman al-Otaibi in 1979. For more background on the aforementioned events, see Yaroslav Trofimov, The Siege at Mecca: The 1979 Uprising at Islam’s Holiest Shrine, (New York, NY: Doubleday, 2007).

[m] Many of those executed represented the core of al-Qa`ida’s operational cohort in Saudi Arabia in the early 2000s, including leading al-Qa`ida ideologue Faris Ahmed Jamaal al-Showail al-Zahrani. See “Saudi Arabia Executes 47 on Terrorism Charges,” Al-Jazeera, January 3, 2016.

[n] In addition to Saudi Arabia, these perceptions are evident among the Arab monarchies that make up the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran is playing out in numerous crisis zones, including Afghanistan, Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen where Iran and Saudi Arabia are engaged in proxy wars through an amalgam of rival political parties, insurgent movements, and terrorist organizations.

[o] The implementation of the nuclear accord signed between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1), known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also shapes Saudi Arabia’s calculus toward Iran. Despite its longstanding strategic alliance with the United States, Saudi Arabia along with other key U.S. allies worry that an enduring détente and eventual rapprochement between the United States and Iran will diminish their importance in the eyes of Washington. Saudi Arabia and other major energy producers in the GCC likewise are wary of Iran’s return to international energy and financial markets.

[p] Al-Nimr went to great lengths to distance himself from Iran and instances where he expressed anti-U.S. sentiments in his public discourse. He went as far as to meet with U.S. diplomatic officials in Saudi Arabia. Details surrounding al-Nimr’s meetings with U.S. diplomatic officials were disclosed in leaked U.S. Embassy cables published by WikiLeaks, dated August 23, 2008.

[q] In addition, despite not publicly providing evidence to support its claims, Saudi Arabia has accused al-Nimr of membership in Hizballah al-Hijaz, a Saudi-based Shi`a militant movement implicated in numerous attacks, including the 1996 attack on the Khobar Towers that killed 19 U.S. servicemen. See Liz Sly, “Who is the Saudi Cleric Whose Death Caused the Riyadh-Tehran Blowup?” Washington Post, January 4, 2016.

[r] The younger al-Nimr is reported to have been subject to torture and other abuses while in custody. See Michael E. Miller, “Ali al-Nimr was a Boy When Thrown in Saudi Prison. Now He is a Man, and is Sentenced to Die,” Washington Post, October 7, 2015.

[s] In radical Islamist discourse, references to al-Saloul draw attention to the family that was responsible for protecting the Kaaba holy shrine in Mecca during the pre-Islamic pagan era.

[t] At least 2,500 Saudis are believed to have traveled to Syria and Iraq to fight alongside the Islamic State and other radical Islamist insurgent factions. See “Foreign Fighters: An Updated Assessment of the Flow of Foreign Fighters into Syria and Iraq,” Soufan Group, December 2015. Saudis were the largest contingent of foreign fighters in a large trove of Islamic State registration forms recovered from the group. See Brian Dodwell, Daniel Milton, and Don Rassler, The Caliphate’s Global Workforce: An Inside Look at the Islamic State’s Foreign Fighter Paper Trail, Combating Terrorism Center, April 18, 2016.

[u] In addition, the Islamic State’s discourse is also replete with references to Wilayat al-Haramein (Province of the Two Holy Places), although it is likely that this label serves as a general descriptor of its presence in and claim to Saudi Arabia as opposed to a unique organization.

[1] For a historical overview of the place of Shi`a in Saudi Arabia, see Toby Matthiesen, The Other Saudis: Shiism, Dissent and Sectarianism (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2015). See also Bayan Perazzo, “On Being Shia in Saudi Arabia: A Survey Looking Into the Lives of Saudi Arabia’s Second-Class Citizens,” Institute for Gulf Affairs, October 28, 2012. See also “The Shiite Question in Saudi Arabia,” Middle East Report No. 45 (New York, NY: International Crisis Group, September 19, 2005).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Al-Furqan Media Foundation, “Even if the Disbelievers Despise Such,” YouTube, November 13, 2014.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Dabiq, Issue 5, Al-Hayat Media Center, November 2014.

[6] Dabiq, Issue 13, Al-Hayat Media Center, January 2016.

[7] “Saudi Arrests 93 Suspected of ISIS Links,” Al-Arabiya, April 28, 2015.

[8] Maamoun Youssef, “Islamic State Affiliate Claims Police Station Bombing,” Associated Press, April 3, 2016.

[9] “Suicide Bomber Kills 15 in Saudi Security Site Mosque,” Reuters, August 6, 2015.

[10] “Saudi Arabia Disrupts Daesh-Linked Cell ‘Soldiers of the Land of the Two Holy Places,’” Asharq al-Awsat, April 29, 2015; “Saudi Arabia Arrests Scores of Suspected ISIL Members,” Al-Jazeera, April 28, 2015.

[11] Rori Donaghy, “Saudi Shia establish self-defence committees after deadly mosque attacks,” Middle East Eye, June 2, 2015.

[12] Cole Bunzel, “The Kingdom and the Caliphate: Duel of the Islamic States,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 18, 2016. See also Vali Nasr, The Shia Revival: How Conflict within Islam Will Shape the Future (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007), pp. 245-247; Raihan Ismail, “The Shi’a Question in Saudi Arabia,” Middle East Institute, June 26. 2015; and “Saudi Arabia’s clerics condemn IS but preach intolerance,” Reuters, September 10, 2014. On refrains in some Saudi media portals, see “Still Invisible: The Stigmatization of Shi`a and Other Religious Minorities in Saudi Arabia,” Minority Rights Group International, November 2015; David A. Graham, “Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr and the Forgotten Shiites of Saudi Arabia,” Atlantic, January 5, 2016; and Toby Matthiesen, “Sectarianism comes back to bite Saudi Arabia,” Washington Post, November 18, 2014. On the relatively high number of Saudi Islamic State recruits, see Dodwell, Milton, and Rassler.

[13] Laurent Bonnefoy, “Saudi Arabia and the Export of Religious Ideologies,” Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre (NOREF), September 2013. See also Rory Donaghy, “Eastern Province Governor Says ‘Evil Filth’ Among Saudi Arabia’s Shiite Community,” Middle East Eye, April 9, 2015.

[14] Toby Matthiesen, Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Spring That Wasn’t (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013), p. 73. See also Frederic Wehrey, “The Forgotten Uprising in Eastern Saudi Arabia,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, June 13, 2013.

[15] “Saudi Arabia Sentences Sheikh Nimr to Death,” Al-Akhbar, October 14, 2014.

[16] Shahira Saloum, “Mohamed al-Nimr: Its About Qatif, Not Iran,” Al-Akhbar, July 12, 2012.

[17] Anne Keleny, “Nimr Baqir al-Nimr: Saudi Arabian Shia Cleric Who Denounced the Kingdom’s Rulers and Called for Religious Freedom,” Independent, January 5, 2016.

[18] Bill Law, “Saudi Arabia Executions: Son of Sheikh al-Nimr Calls on David Cameron to Save His Cousin from Death Sentence,” Independent, January 23, 2016.

[19] “Shi`a Cleric Among 47 Executed by Saudi Arabia in a Single Day,” Amnesty International, January 2, 2016. See also “Saudi Arabia: Mass Execution Largest Since 1980,” Human Rights Watch, January 4, 2016.

[20] Simeon Kerr, “Saudi Police Kill One in Execution Backlash,” Financial Times, January 4, 2016.

[21] Liz Sly, “Saudi Arabia Breaks Diplomatic Ties with Iran as Crisis Intensifies,” Washington Post, January 3, 2016.

[22] “Hezbollah: Assassination of Martyr Sheikh Nimr Will Demolish Al-Saud Falsehood,” Al-Manar, January 2, 2016.

[23] “Iraq’s Sistani Condemns Nimr Execution, Sadr Organizes Protests,” Reuters, January 3, 2016.

[24] Bill Roggio, “Popular Mobilization Committee Militia Threatens to ‘Strike and Destroy’ the Saudi Government,” Long War Journal, October 30, 2015.

[25] “Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr: Anger at Execution of Top Cleric,” BBC, January 2, 2016.

[26] “New York Protest Condemns Execution of Sheikh Nimr,” Press TV, January 4, 2016.

[27] For example, see William Habeeb, The Middle East in Turmoil: Conflict, Revolution, and Change (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO/Greenwood, 2012), p. 168.

[28] Chris Zambelis, “To Topple the Throne: The Islamic State Sets its Sights on Saudi Arabia,” Terrorism Monitor 13:5 (Washington, D.C.: Jamestown Foundation), March 6, 2015.

[29] Abdullah Suleiman Ali, “Saudi Jihadists Flow Into Syria,” Al-Safir, December 3, 2013.

[30] Aaron Y. Zelin, “The Saudi Foreign Fighter Presence in Syria,” CTC Sentinel 7:4 (2014).

[31] “Five Killed in Saudi Arabia Shooting,” Al-Jazeera, November 4, 2014.

[32] “Saudi Arabia Attack: Islamic State Claims Shia Mosque Bombing,” BBC, May 22, 2015.

[33] “Saudi Ismaili Shia Mosque Blast, 2 Dead, 12 Injured, ISIS Claimed Responsibility,” AhlulBayt News Agency, October 27, 2015.

[34] “Wilayat Najd Calls for the Expulsion of Shi`a from the Arabian Peninsula,” Al-Bawaba, October 13, 2015.

[35] Simeon Kerr, “Saudi Citizen Fahad Suleiman al-Gabbaa Named as Kuwait Attacker,” Financial Times, June 28, 2015.

[36] Donaghy.

[37] “Two Saudi Police Shot Dead in Kingdom’s East,” Middle East Eye, November 18, 2015.

Stay Informed

Sign up to receive updates from CTC.

Sign up