A "Saudi Spring?": The Shi'a Protest Movement in the Eastern Province 2011-2012

Article excerpt

Since 2011, Saudi Arabia experienced the largest and longest protest movement in its modern history. This article outlines how small protests inspired by the so-called "Arab Spring" and in solidarity with the uprising in neighboring Bahrain developed into a sustained youth protest movement with its own particular demands and frames of references. At the local level, the article shows how the emergence of this protest movement affected the political and social dynamics within the Saudi Shi'a community. The government reacted with repression and an anti-Shi'a sectarian rhetoric that ensured that the "Saudi Spring" in the Eastern Province failed to spill over to the rest of the country. The case study of the Eastern Province protest movement in 2011 and 2012 shows that, while new media are good organizational tools for protesters, personal networks, a semi-autonomous public sphere, and histories of political subversion facilitate a protest movement.

The "Arab Spring"1 caught almost everyone, including scholars of the Middle East, by surprise.2 For too long, scholars and policy-makers had studied the apparent strength of Middle Eastern states, their armies, and their security apparatuses, while Western governments and businesses were propping up these same authoritarian states by selling them aircraft, tanks, and surveillance equipment. The "Arab Spring" protests force us to reconsider the relative strengths and weaknesses of authoritarian states and think about where the agency of people in the region rested when it was not visible to scholars or the security apparatuses of the state. Agency lay in day-to-day acts of resistance;3 in jokes about governors, dictators, and princes; stories about earlier protests; and in memories about oppression and resistance.4 These narratives and practices, however, need spaces where they can be shared, and these intermediary spaces were not available everywhere. Satellite television and internet access profoundly transformed the public spheres across the globe, but particularly so in the Middle East, where public discourse and the press has been regulated in a particularly strict manner. These virtual places are key for the diffusion of the ideals of the Arab Spring across the Arab World,5 and allow for discussion amongst young Saudis, including Saudi Shi'a activists. But there also had to be some previous form of social interaction amongst activists, as well as civil society structures that could facilitate the preparation of protests and act as gathering and discussion places. Perhaps needless to say, there had to be distrust of the government, and a youth that felt despair and anger.

In that respect, the case of Saudi Arabia and its response to the "Arab Spring," as well as to the protests in the kingdom, are a good case study to explain where protests happened and where they did not, and how regimes in the region deployed counter-revolutionary tactics and the "politics of notables" to stay in power.6 When the "Arab Spring" swept through the Middle East, toppling dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, and threatening others in 2011, Saudi Arabia stood out through the absence of mass protests in its key urban centers. The ruling family survived the "Arab Spring," and attempts by demonstrators to form a country-wide broad protest movement via online networks failed in March 2011.

And yet, the protests by Shi'a Muslims in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province from February 2011 turned into the largest and longest protest movement in Saudi Arabia's modern history, a protest movement that is often overlooked in discussions of the "Arab Spring."7 Therefore, I define this protest movement as part of a "Saudi Spring," an amalgam of protests, petitions, and online debates about political reform and the release of political prisoners that was influenced by the Arab Spring.8 This account of the protest movement in the Eastern Province argues that, apart from new media and a public sphere ripe for revolutionary symbols and narratives, a protest movement is facilitated by personal contacts and a history of political subversion. …