SAUDI leaders are on full alert after Islamic State affiliates claimed credit for the bombings of Shiite mosques in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province on May 21 and May 29. Though the attacks display little technical sophistication, Riyadh is attempting to secure the region without inciting sectarian violence. Officially, the government has broadcast the message that authorities alone should handle security activities. In practice, however, Saudi police and local Shiites have been able to work past their long-standing disputes to tacitly cooperate in securing Eastern Province, which hosts the majority of Saudi oil production and energy-related infrastructure.
Saudi Shiites have never had much confidence in their government. Security forces, backed by a Wahhabi Muslim establishment with deeply anti-Shiite views, have often been involved in confrontations with the protesting religious minority in Eastern Province.
After two consecutive suicide attacks against Shiite mosques during Friday prayers, sectarian relations in the region are tense. Subsequently, Riyadh delivered a strong message to the Shiite population: The state, and not its inhabitants, is the ultimate arbiter of justice. If the Shiite minority attempts to apprehend and punish jihadists, it could destabilize the country and challenge the Saudi government’s authority. The government is particularly sensitive to the risk of rising Shiite power within its own borders at a time when Iran is gaining regional influence and Houthi forces supported by Iran continue to control Yemen, just across the border.
Despite these fears, local Shiites are, to some extent, taking matters into their own hands. They are reportedly engaging in their own security and making arrests without Riyadh’s interference. In fact, despite initial claims by Saudi authorities that they would not tolerate local vigilantism, Shiites and state authorities have actually been quietly cooperating in apprehending suspected Sunni militants in the days following the May 21 attack.
Cooperation with locals
In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the Saudi government responded by increasing the state’s security presence, arrests and intelligence activities in the oil-rich region. It was a natural, almost knee-jerk reaction. But Riyadh also made a careful diplomatic move: Authorities reached out to local Shiite religious leaders to broadcast their intentions in the region more effectively and to express the government’s understanding of local Shiite concerns. In addition, the Saudi government has allowed Shiite groups to conduct their own investigations and arrests in the wake of the bombings.
This development is significant. Some of these groups have links with existing Shiite militias, which have often been targets of government investigation. In the past, the mobilization of such forces resulted in proactive arrests and clashes with Saudi security forces. Though subtle, Riyadh’s current cooperation with Shiite groups shows that the government has prioritized containing the threat posed by Sunni militancy over preventing the formation of Shiite self-defense forces.
Mobilized Shiite groups are now working with the Saudi government, rather than in opposition to it, to track down and detain domestic jihadists. Rather than holding or executing suspects themselves, the groups are choosing to hand suspects over to state security forces to be tried through formal judiciary channels. The environment is still tense, and Riyadh is on guard for sectarian violence, but Shiite self-defense forces are managing to avoid crackdowns by working alongside officials.
Of course, the government’s cooperation is necessarily implicit; the Wahhabi religious backing of the ruling House of Saud is marked by a strong anti-Shiite position, and Saudi Arabia is the primary competitor for regional influence against Shiite Iran. The government still strongly opposes the Shiites and condemns vigilante justice. But behind the scenes, it is allowing some level of autonomy for the Shiite self-defense forces.
The government is also enabling locals to handle their own security at places of worship, which has helped to identify would-be attackers. Following the May 21 suicide attack that killed more than 20 people and wounded dozens more, local Shiites increased security at mosques and other local meeting places. Their efforts prevented the May 29 attacker from reaching his intended target: Four local Shiites stopped the jihadist, who was disguised in traditional women’s clothing, from entering the mosque. The attacker detonated his suicide belt in the car, killing himself and the four locals, but he failed to inflict the level of damage he had planned for the mosque.
Even as the Shiite minority and the Saudi government overcome their differences and work together, sectarian tension remains high, so Saudi authorities have been treading carefully. Relations between Saudi Shiites and the state have been strained at best, and because Shiites have historically been the targets of police arrests in the Eastern Province, there has been little trust between the two groups.
The onus will be on Riyadh to show public resolve in arresting and trying radical Sunni elements in order to maintain Shiite confidence and cooperation and thus ensure stability. The mosque attacks in Eastern Province come at a critical time for Riyadh — the kingdom is attempting to manage an emerging nuclear deal between Iran and the United States, combat the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and battle Shiite-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen. If Sunni attacks become more frequent or more deadly, or if Shiites become unsatisfied with the Saudi government’s response, local residents are more likely to take security measures into their own hands, potentially triggering sectarian communal violence in the heart of Saudi oil country.
But for now, in the face of a common enemy, Saudi’s Shiite community and state security forces are working together to combat a Sunni militancy, however short that may be.
© 2015, STRTAFOR GLOBAL INTELLIGENCE
Publishing by The Manila Times of this analysis is with the express permission STRATFOR.