The first thing I noticed when I visited al-Awamiya, a Shiite town in oil-rich eastern Saudi Arabia, was its utter isolation and stark poverty. Ringed by date groves, it is a tableau of drab buildings, car-repair shops, and restless young men that stands in sharp contrast to the gleaming wealth that most people imagine when they think of Saudi Arabia. It wasn’t easy to get there. My Shiite hosts threaded a twisting, unpaved road through the date groves and past police checkpoints. Once inside the town, I was met with a massive security presence: turreted ramparts, armored vehicles, and fatigue-clad soldiers.

Since 2011 (and even before), al-Awamiya has been ground zero in a largely forgotten corner of the Arab Spring: the struggle of Saudi Arabia’s Shiites -- who comprise about 15 percent of the country's population -- for greater political and economic rights, and especially equal treatment by the country’s dominant Salafi establishment, which regards them as deviants from Sunni orthodoxy. Since the first wave of protests in 2011, approximately 20 young men from al-Awamiya and other Shiite towns have died at the hands of government forces, sometimes during peaceful demonstrations and occasionally in violent exchanges with police. Many of their demands extended far beyond Shiite-specific reforms, encompassing changes to the very structure of power in Saudi Arabia: reform of the judiciary, the release of political prisoners, a constitution, and greater power for elected bodies. This is precisely what made them so threatening.

Frederic Wehrey
Frederic Wehrey is a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His research deals with armed conflict, security sector governance, and U.S. policy, with a focus on Libya, North Africa, and the Gulf.
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On Oct. 15, tensions escalated when a Riyadh court sentenced to death Nimr al-Nimr, a charismatic Shiite cleric from al-Awamiya. Nimr was charged with seeking “foreign meddling” and taking up arms against security forces. To be sure, his personal attacks on the royal family were inflammatory and politically unwise, including a now-infamous sermon celebrating the death of Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, the late crown prince and interior minister, in 2012. But Nimr had studiously avoided incitement to violence in his speeches, distanced himself from Iran, and called for the fall of Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria. Many of the Shiite activists I spoke with idolized Nimr as an icon of resistance, but one who continually extolled the virtues of peaceful activism and dignity.

His sentencing was a shocking act that thrust al-Awamiya onto the stage of broader regional tensions, triggering protests across the Shiite areas of eastern Saudi Arabia, condemnation from Iran and Hezbollah, and threats of retaliation by militant Shiite groups in Iraq and Bahrain. Adding fuel to the fire, Sunni gunmen on Nov. 3 killed seven Shiite worshippers and wounded dozens at a village in the neighboring governorate of al-Ahsa during the commemoration of the Shiite holy day of Ashura.

The sentencing of Nimr and the killing of the Shiite worshippers have cast a harsh light on the paradoxes of one of Washington’s crucial allies in the fight against the Islamic State. Riyadh has pledged to counter the barbarity of the Islamic State and has warned that the terrorist group intends to incite sectarian conflict inside the kingdom. Yet in its own domestic policies, the Saudi government has institutionalized sectarianism in virtually every aspect of political, social, and economic life. It is a witches’ brew that has largely escaped U.S. attention, but one that has long provided the ideological grist for the Islamic State and other Sunni jihadi groups.

To be sure, since the 1990s, the Saudi government has made some relative progress in terms of infrastructural development of the Eastern Province, where Shiite villages and towns have historically lagged behind their Sunni neighbors in terms of government funding. It allowed some degree of religious freedom for the exercise of Shiite rituals and practices. Perhaps one positive byproduct of the killings in recent months has been rare expressions of cross-sectarian unity by influential Sunni clerics, senior Saudi officials, and editorialists. Some observers have gone so far as to predict that the tragedy marks a turning point, ushering in a new era of Sunni-Shiite harmony in the kingdom.

But there are inherent limits to how far real reconciliation can proceed between Sunnis and Shiites in Saudi Arabia, given the inherently exclusionary outlook of hard-line elements in the country’s Salafi establishment, for whom sectarianism is not only a deeply held belief but an expedient means to maintain political and economic relevance. It is an outlook that is implicitly countenanced by the royal family as a ruling strategy. The result is a pernicious, everyday sectarianism that afflicts ordinary citizens, especially in times of regional upheaval and heightened tensions with Iran.

It is particularly disturbing that the leader of the assailants was purportedly a Saudi jihadi returnee from Iraq and Syria, whom Saudi authorities accuse of conducting the attack at the behest of the Islamic State. No doubt his experiences abroad radicalized him; official statements have portrayed the attackers as inspired by al Qaeda’s “deviant ideology,” which regime proponents have long argued is alien and foreign to the kingdom’s dominant school of Islamic jurisprudence. But sectarianism was already deeply ingrained in the attackers’ worldview. Its ultimate origins are domestic -- and not confined to the fringe.

Saudi commentators have been arguing that, whatever its excesses, the Islamic State at least has the virtue of being a Sunni buffer against an expanding Shiite crescent. And in the aftermath of the al-Ahsa attack, scattered voices across Saudi Arabia -- from religious faculty to newspaper columnists -- tried to shift the blame back to Syria and Iran, with some even hinting that the Shiites themselves and their Iranian backers had orchestrated the attack. This is the sort of deceitful discourse that creates fertile ground for violence and puts limits on lasting, cross-sectarian reforms.

In recent months, there have been revealing indications of just how entrenched these limits are. Potential bridge-builders between Sunnis and Shiites have been subjected to increased pressure and prosecution. The tribulations of Mikhlif al-Shammari are Exhibit A in this crackdown. An outspoken Sunni writer and notable from a prominent tribe with both Sunni and Shiite branches, Shammari conducted outreach on behalf of Saudi Shiites -- attending Shiite sermons and funerals and defending Shiite clerics from attacks by Salafists -- which endeared him to Shiites and stoked the ire of Sunni conservatives. On Nov. 3, a criminal court sentenced him to two years in prison and 200 lashings for meeting Shiite leaders in the east and reportedly paying condolences to the family of a slain Shiite protester. This came on top of a separate sentencing in June 2013 to five years in prison for similar activism, under the vaguely defined charges of “sowing discord.”

A day after the al-Ahsa killings, the Saudi minister of culture and information announced the shutdown of al-Wesal, an anti-Shiite satellite TV station that was widely despised by many Shiite activists I met. But less than a day later, the minister was sacked. The reasons for his dismissal are unknown, and several observers have ruled out any connection. What is certain is that his statement on the channel’s ban triggered criticism by Saudi Sunnis on social media, some of whom demanded that Shiite channels be shuttered as well. As of this writing, al-Wesal is still in operation and being received in Saudi Arabia.

Both episodes show the dilemma that confronts more moderate wings of the Saudi royal family that may genuinely wish for a relaxation of the sectarian orthodoxy and the enactment of limited reforms, but must be mindful of the backlash from conservatives. The result is a delicate balancing act by the royals that results in frequent reversals and mixed signals to Shiites. The sentencing of Nimr may have resulted from just such a calculus. It was a way for the House of Saud to deflect pressure from Salafi clerics and conservative factions who oppose the regime’s incarceration of Sunnis critical of King Abdullah’s reforms. Some of these voices also resent the kingdom’s participation in the anti-Islamic State coalition, which they see as tilting the regional balance of power in favor of Iran and Shiites.

Many Saudi observers and Western diplomats told me that the sentence is unlikely to be carried out and assume King Abdullah will issue a royal pardon at the eleventh hour. But the damage to Shiite trust and Saudi Arabia’s social fabric has been done. In commuting the sentence, King Abdullah will try once more to portray himself to his country’s Shiites as a benevolent protector, holding back Sunni radicals. But Saudi Arabia’s leadership will yet again fail to take the steps needed to address the roots of Shiite dissent.

Tackling these root causes and moving toward a more pluralistic landscape in Saudi Arabia will be a generational struggle. It is one that is largely beyond the capacity of U.S. policy to affect. Still, as the United States solicits the kingdom’s counterterrorism assistance against the Islamic State, Washington should simultaneously exert greater scrutiny of Saudi Arabia’s domestic affairs, particularly in the judicial realm, to ensure that the government’s policies at home are not fueling the very extremism it purports to be fighting.

In particular, Washington should demand the repeal of sweeping new anti-terrorism laws that criminalize broad categories of social and political activism, such as that of Nimr and Shammari. The United States also should be wary of religion-based “counterradicalization” programs that are showcased by Riyadh’s state-funded clerical establishment as part of the fight against the Islamic State. “Counterradical” does not mean “countersectarian” in the Saudi context. Many of the clerical arguments in these programs are geared toward insulating the regime from the radicals’ attacks while ignoring the more intolerant, sectarian, and anti-American tenets of extremist discourse. And because the clerics delivering these messages are tied to the government, they often lack credibility in the eyes of the audiences most susceptible to the Islamic State’s appeal.

Perhaps most importantly, the United States should continue to engage Riyadh on reforms that offer equal political and economic opportunities to all Saudis, regardless of their sect. Such policies will not only redress Shiite grievances in increasingly restive towns like al-Awamiya, but will also combat the narrative of Sunni chauvinism that drives Saudis into the ranks of the Islamic State.

This article was originally published in Foreign Policy.