Written by Y. Admon
On July 8, 2012, Saudi security forces the Shi'ite city of 'Awamiya (in Al-Qatif governorate in the country's Eastern Province) arrested senior Shi'ite cleric Nimr Bakr Al-Nimr. As on several occasions in the past, he was arrested for sedition after directing harsh criticism and invective at the Saudi royal family and demanding reforms in the kingdom. In the course of his arrest security officers shot him in the leg. 
Saudi dailies justified the sheikh's arrest, claiming that he has been inciting against the state and its citizens. Some columnists said that his incitement clearly indicated that he was a supporter of Iran, and others even accused him of employing terrorism similar to Al-Qaeda's and called him a "Shi'ite bin Laden" reminiscent of Hizbullah. Satisfaction over his arrest was also expressed by Saudis on the social networks.
Al-Nimr's arrest re-ignited the Shi'ite protests in eastern Saudi Arabia, including a protest in Al-Qatif in which three citizens were killed by security forces fire. It should be mentioned that the governorate has seen Shi'ite protests since March 2011 – the outbreak of the Arab Spring uprisings – and even before that. At first they were demonstrations in solidarity with the Shi'ite protests in Bahrain. Later, Shi'ites protested in demand to release prisoners and enact reforms in Saudi Arabia. In March this year, they demonstrated in solidarity with the student protests that erupted in the kingdom. Nine Shi'ite citizens were killed in the course of these protests, and 600 were arrested, 150 of whom are still in custody.
The latest wave of Shi'ite protests evoked reactions in Saudi Arabia and outside it, especially in Iran and Russia. As mentioned, Saudi dailies justified the arrest of Sheikh Al-Nimr, which had sparked the protests. As in the case of previous Shi'ite protests, they also claimed that foreign elements – hinting at Iran – were inciting the Shi'ites with the aim of undermining Saudi Arabia's security. Iranian officials and regime mouthpieces assessed that the Saudi regime was on the brink of collapse, and Russian officials expressed concern over the state of human rights in the kingdom. The latter response was seen by Saudis as interference in their country's affairs and sparked harsh criticism against Russia.
Shi'ite protests have also reemerged in Bahrain recently. July 24, 2012 saw clashes between security forces and hundreds of protesters demanding the release of prisoners, the resignation of the prime minister, the enacting of reforms, and an end to aggression by the security forces. Eye witnesses reported that the protesters threw fire bombs at the police, and that the latter used tear gas and that some protesters were injured. On the same day, the Bahraini foreign minister said in Paris that France would help Bahrain to enact judiciary and media reforms.
Saudi Arabia, which has long been concerned about the possible spread of the Arab Spring uprisings to its territory, is determined to contain the Shi'ite protests, lest they spark a sweeping uprising in the kingdom that could threaten the regime.
This report will review the events sparked in eastern Saudi Arabia by Al-Nimr's arrest and the reactions to these events in Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as the Saudi-Russian media clash over this affair.
As stated above, Shi'ite cleric Nimr Bakr Al-Nimr was shot and arrested on July 8, 2012, after directing harsh criticism at the regime and royal family. The sheikh is in fact known for his blunt and even vitriolic statements against the Saudi royals. In one of his recent sermons, he called to oust then crown prince Nayef bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz, and after the prince died on June 16, 2012, he rejoiced. In a sermon following Prince Nayef's death, Al-Nimr said: "Where is [Prince] Nayef's army now? Will it protect him from the Angel of Death? Where are his intelligence agencies? Where are his officers? Can they protect him from the Angel of Death? He will be eaten by worms and suffer the torments of Hell in his grave. Why doesn't a king retire when the time comes? Must the Angel of Death come to take his soul? Nayef did not retire, so the Angel of Death had to take his soul to rid us of him. Imam Hussein said: 'No shedder of blood shall enter Paradise.' Will Nayef enter Paradise?
"Some say: 'Don't talk ill of Nayef because he's dead.' Are you stupid? Don't you see that the Koran says: 'On that day shall the believers rejoice?' Why shouldn't we be happy at the death of the man who imprisoned and killed our children? This is the man who spread fear and terror, so why shouldn't we rejoice? Allah be praised! May He take their lives, one after the other – the Sa'ud, Khalifa, and Al-Assad dynasties..."
Sheikh Al-Nimr after being shot and arrested by the security forces.
Following Al-Nimr's arrest, protests erupted in Al-Qatif governorate, with Shi'ite citizens demonstrating against the regime, carrying pictures of Sheikh Al-Nimr and condemning his arrest. In one protest, two Shi'ite citizens were killed from Saudi security forces fire, and others were injured. In response, Saudi Interior Ministry spokesman Mansour Al-Turki said: "The security forces will not be lax in dealing with the instigators of conflict... who have become a tool in the hands of the enemies of the homeland and the [Saudi] nation..."
On July 11, 2012, thousands of Shi'ites participated in the funeral of one of the men killed during the protest in Al-Qatif. Some of them carried signs condemning the royal family and calling for the ouster of Muhammad bin Fahd, the governor of the Eastern Province. According to a report circulated on anti-Shi'ite Sunni websites, a group of Shi'ites gave the Saudi government five days to release Al-Nimr, otherwise they would attack security forces.
Subsequently, throughout July and in early August, the Saudi authorities and media reported on a series of incidents in which armed Shi'ites attacked security forces and facilities in the Eastern Province with firebombs and gunfire. According to the reports, at least one security officer was killed, and several of the armed men were killed or arrested.
Protesters in Al-Qatif call for Al-Nimr's release
Following these events, 15 Shi'ite clerics from Al-Qatif issued a communique calling on citizens to restrain themselves and avoid a security breakdown. Other Shi'ite clerics also called on citizens to eschew violence. Shi'ite cleric Hassan Al-Nimr Al-Moussawi said that demanding rights was legitimate, and that preventing such demands was a sign of oppression. He criticized what he called the anti-Shi'ite discrimination practiced by Saudi authorities, adding that citizens had a right to express their opinion just like citizens in other countries, as long as this was done without violence.
In their Friday sermons on July 13, 2012, Shi'ite clerics condemned Al-Nimr's arrest, claiming that it was an attack on their sect, that all Al-Nimr did was demand legitimate rights, and that sectarian discrimination was the reason for the tensions in eastern Saudi Arabia. In an interview with the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, Al-Nimr's brother, Saudi oppositionist Muhammad Al-Nimr, said he did not think the situation would explode, "because conditions are not ripe for an explosion," and lay the responsibility for the escalation in eastern Saudi Arabia on "the extremist Wahhabi side."
On July 17, 2012, the protests in Al-'Awamiya were renewed. Several videos posted on YouTube show citizens calling to topple the Al-Sa'ud regime.
In addition, Shi'ite activists from Al-Qatif, some of whom are identified with a Shi'ite group called "The Jihadist Movement of Al-Qatif – the Military Wing of the Free Al-Qatif Movement," opened Facebook pages expressing solidarity with Al-Nimr. The pages contained slogans such as: "We warn the Saudi authorities against an attempt to assassinate the mujahid Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr; we promise you armed protests." Another Facebook page featured Al-Nimr's photo accompanied by the statement: "No force can stop the mission for the sake of honor." One page presented photos of Shi'ite citizens who were killed during the Al-Qatif protests. Furthermore, Shi'ite activists on social networking sites called on men and women to protest in Al-Qatif on July 25-26, 2012, and to call: "We are Al-Nimr." They pledged to continue the "acts of solidarity in condemnation of the attack on 'Ayatollah' Al-Nimr and his arrest..."
"The Jihadist Movement of Al-Qatif; we promise you armed protests"
"No force can stop the mission for the sake of honor"
"The dead of Al-Qatif and the victims of torture"
In response to the protests, Saudi Interior Minister Prince Ahmad bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz said that Saudi Arabia objects to those who harm the security of the homeland. According to him, the people of Al-Qatif governorate were the first to fiercely condemn the events in Al-'Awamiya and ask the authorities to respond firmly to anyone who rebelled against the regime. At a press conference held on July 29, 2012, following a meeting of the governors of the Jeddah provinces, the Saudi foreign minister said that security in the country was good, as every citizen could see, and that security violations by a few would not lead to any good. Referring to Al-Nimr, he called him a crazy rabble-rouser of questionable erudition, saying that his statements, and the way in which he expressed them, indicated a lack of knowledge or else some disorder.
Concurrently, Saudi Arabia began to prepare for the possible spread of the protests. On July 1, 2012, government sources reported that Saudi Arabia had deployed large forces in the Eastern Province and cancelled military officers' leave, fearing more Shi'ite riots in the area after the death of two protestors. According to the report, on June 26, 2012, senior officers ordered to increase security presence in the Eastern Province and to declare a high alert.
On July 10, 2012, two days after Al-Nimr's arrest and the subsequent protests, the head of the Saudi National Guard, Prince Mit'ab bin 'Abdallah, visited the National Guard headquarters in Al-Dammam as part of a tour of National Guard units in the Eastern Province. During the visit, he said that the National Guard has an arsenal and capabilities that are commanded and directed by King 'Abdallah, and that it is fully prepared to handle any development at any time. During a tour of National Guard units in the Al-Qassim Province, Prince Mit'ab said that 90% of inciting rumors in Saudi Arabia came from outside the country, and that the Saudi citizen knew how to regard them. He called for vigilance in order to protect the security and stability of the country, and designated one of the National Guard brigades a special security force.
On July 19, 2012, Saudi King 'Abdallah appointed Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz head of Saudi Intelligence, in place of Prince Muqrin bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz. Prince Bandar will also continue his role as the head of the Saudi National Security Council. Born in 1949, he is the son of former crown prince Sultan bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz, who died in 2011. He served in the Royal Air Force, and after his retirement, transitioned to politics and became Saudi ambassador to Washington in 1983, a job that he held until 2005. As ambassador, Prince Bandar had several diplomatic successes, such as mediating the Lockerbie crisis between Libya and the West, helping end the civil war in Lebanon, and more. His appointment as intelligence chief is presumably meant to enhance Saudi preparedness for an internal conflict with the Shi'ites in the east. An article in the Saudi daily Al-Watan stated: "A man with such a wealth of success and experience is qualified to handle certain dossiers in his new role that relate to dangers and threats that loom over the kingdom... from the north, east, and south..."
The mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh 'Abd Al-'Aziz Aal Al-Sheikh, was also enlisted in the effort to stop the spread of protests. In an interview with the Saudi daily Al-Madina, he warned against those who exploit social networks to call for "anarchy, protests, and rebellion against the rulers," saying: "Modern technological means such as cell phones, or social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, etc., are a double edged sword... Reality shows that they are used for evil more than for good." The mufti warned Muslims not to turn the social networks into the source of their information.
In an interview with the Saudi daily Al-Watan, the mufti said that the actions of the "rabble" in Al-Awamiya were "a serious matter," since they were aimed at dividing the nation and sparking conflict between the people of the homeland. He called on residents of Al-Qatif to not submit to the enemies of the state, who want to ignite conflict and sow hatred in its ranks.
The Shi'ite protests in eastern Saudi Arabia were met with satisfaction in Iran. Regime officials and mouthpieces swiftly reiterated that the Al-Sa'ud regime is on the way out, and that this is a historic period in Saudi Arabia's history. A group of Majlis members expressed sweeping support for "the democratic uprising of the Saudi people demanding freedom and justice." Majlis member Mohammad Bayatian claimed that Al-Nimr's arrest had set off "the countdown to the elimination of the Al-Sa'ud regime," and estimated that "the regime's violence cannot continue over time in the face of popular protest." A website close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) claimed that the countdown to the fall of the Saudi regime had begun back in 2011, when various regimes identified with the U.S. were toppled in the region. The website estimated that the protests and calls of "death to Al-Sa'ud," which are spreading out from eastern Saudi Arabia – the source of Islamic awakening in the country – prove that "the regime in Saudi Arabia is nearing its final days."
The daily Jomhouri-e Eslami repeated its typical anti-Saudi line regarding the imminent fall of its tyrannical regime, and claimed that Saudi Arabia was facing "an historic moment that [would] shatter the glass palaces of its tyrannical rulers once and for all, and change the political map in the region and the [political power] balance in the Middle East." The daily explained that the "storm of popular revolutions" had arrived in Saudi Arabia [in March 2012] in the form of student protests in Riyadh universities and Sunni protests against the Wahhabi intimidation tactics. These developments, it claimed, caused Saudi rulers to lose sleep, since they proved that various sectors in the country had attained self-consciousness and were now demanding civil rights denied to them for years. The daily claimed that the situation in Saudi Arabia was such that "at any time, an eruption [could] change the balance of power in the country with the greatest oil wealth in the region." It estimated that Saudi Arabia is sitting on "a large powder keg of popular demands," and added: "One large spark can cause a massive explosion in this peninsula... The Al-Sa'ud regime is transient, because the Saudi people are willing to pay the necessary price [to topple it]... Saudi Arabia is currently on a path of no return, after [being subject to] an oppressive regime that denied its people all their basic rights."
The regime mouthpiece Kayhan also predicted that, in the coming months, popular protest would topple the Saudi regime. In an article titled "[The Al-Sa'ud Regime Is] A Minority Facing Collapse In Saudi Arabia," Kayhan claimed: "The changes occurring in Saudi Arabia are especially sensitive and significant. They may take a long time to unfold, but signs [of their commencement] will become apparent soon... Saudi Arabia is not a uniform entity – it consists of several religion-based states, and no sect has an absolute majority... The protests in Saudi Arabia are spreading from the east to the Najd area and the Hejaz... There is no doubt that, in the coming months, an all-encompassing, total revolution will erupt in Saudi Arabia." Majlis National Security Committee member Ahmad Bakhshayesh Ardestani said that Tehran would not fall into the trap set by Saudi Arabia, which oppressed its Shi'ites in order to trigger a Shi'ite-Sunni conflict throughout the region and thus draw Iran into a religious confrontation. According to Ardestani, Tehran is proceeding very cautiously, and calls on the international community to stop the oppression and the violation of human rights in Saudi Arabia.
Despite the blatant anti-Saudi position of many regime circles, Iranian officials stressed that Tehran desires good relations with Riyadh. Majlis Speaker 'Ali Larijani, an associate of Supreme Leader 'Ali Khamenei, said that Tehran's strategy was to maintain good relations with all Muslims countries, chiefly Saudi Arabia, and that no disagreement should prevent good relations between the two countries. Foreign Minister 'Ali Akbar Salehi also said that Iran was prepared to maintain excellent relations with its neighbors, and that it sought peace and stability in the region.
The events in eastern Saudi Arabia also sparked conflict between Saudi Arabia and Russia, whose relations have been strained for over a year due to their respective positions on the events in Syria and on Iran. On July 12, 2012, the Russian foreign ministry website reported that the ministry's commissioner for human rights, Konstantin Dolgov, expressed concern over the clashes in eastern Saudi Arabia, and hope that the Saudi authorities would maintain human rights, including freedom of expression and the right to hold nonviolent protests. This statement caused outrage in Saudi Arabia. An official at the Saudi foreign ministry rejected Dolgov's remarks and said that they constituted a clear and unjust interference in the affairs of the kingdom. He expressed hope that the statement was not meant to divert public attention from the massacre in Syria. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov clarified in response that his country was not trying to interfere in the kingdom's internal affairs by expressing concern about its human rights situation. At a Moscow press conference, Lavrov said: "The tone of the Russian foreign ministry's statement was calm, and the language was appropriate and did not imply interference... in the kingdom's internal affairs." He admitted that Russia and Saudi Arabia disagree on several issues, such as the situation in Syria.
Saudi dailies criticized the Russian position on the events in eastern Saudi Arabia and on Syria, claiming that, considering its own record, Russia was in no moral position to talk about human rights. An editorial in the Saudi daily Al-Madina claimed that Russia's perception of democracy was similar to Stalin's and Hitler's: "There is a reason for Russia's hypocritical [stance] on the oppressive regime in Syria, since Russia [itself] has a black past in terms of human rights violations [in various countries,] from Afghanistan to Chechnya, and a role in supporting war criminals in former Yugoslavia.
"It is not strange that the artisans of war in the world should threaten and sabotage the processes of peace and democracy. The Russians' perception of democracy is similar to that of tyrannical [rulers] like Stalin and Hitler: a perception that sees the people as slaves of the one ruling party. That is their perception of human dignity. It is possible that Russia, which is now speaking of human rights in moderate Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, is deliberately forgetting its open support of tyrannical regimes everywhere. It seems that Russian democracy [means] killing, intimidation, expulsion and the rule of tanks and jets. The Russian government must reexamine its mistaken position vis-Ã -vis Arab and Muslim countries before speaking of human rights – since it is the last country in the world that should be making statements [on this issue]...
"Saudi Arabia is not a rival [of Russia], nor will it become one. [Saudi Arabia] is a country with strong faith, a strong leadership, and a strong people, which has opposed oppression from the infancy of Islam and until today... [We reject] the Russian government's [expressions of] concern regarding [the state of] human rights in moderate countries. [Russia] is the one who gave the murderer Bashar Al-Assad a green light to commit the most heinous crimes against humanity that history has ever known... Russia must cease interfering in the affairs of other countries and heed its [own] hungry people, which is ruled by a gang led by Putin, who is sometimes prime minister and sometimes president. This is the 'glorious and lovely' democracy that the Russians want to export to the countries of the world..."
An editorial in the Saudi daily Al-Yawm stated: "[Russia's] claims regarding the crimes committed in Al-'Awamiya have sparked condemnation from world countries and from Saudi public opinion. It is clearly an interference [in Saudi Arabia's affairs], and a resentful response to the staunch Saudi position on the rivers of blood being shed in Syria while the world [stands] watching and listening...
"Russia is in no position to lecture [anyone] on human rights, after clashing with tens of thousands of Russians who protested Putin's rise to power... Russian security forces were not remiss in carrying out their orders... to use force against these protests... We hope [the Russians] change their political thinking and act to change their positions on the events in Syria and on other issues in the world. The [Saudi] kingdom and its united people will continue [repelling] any invasion or attempt to divide the national ranks..."
In an article in the Saudi daily Al-Sharq, columnist Jasser Al-Jasser wrote: "...The humane Russia weeps over the death of a terrorist who attacked security [officers] in Saudi Arabia, while cheerfully helping Assad, who kills hundreds of children and women every day. [Russia] believes that his actions are legitimate and will ensure stability and social calm, and delays every international move to protect the weak and oppressed, claiming that the events in Syria are a purely internal matter that concerns only Moscow. There is no moral justification for the Russian position. If Russia really was humane, it would hasten [to purge itself]... of its crimes against the Syrians, who have classified it as their enemy that cares only [to perpetuate] their ongoing slaughter..."
Russian hypocrisy: supporting Assad while criticizing human rights in Saudi Arabia
Russian poster calling for human rights, written in the blood that stains its hands
* Y. Admon is a research fellow at MEMRI.
© The Middle East Media Research Institute All Rights Reserved.
 Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), July 9, 2012.
 Al-Watan, Al-Jazirah, Al-Sharq (Saudi Arabia), July 10, 2012.
 See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Report No. 819, "First Signs of Protest by Sunnis in Saudi Arabia," April 4, 2012,
 Rasid.com, July 13, 2012.
 Gulfinthemedia.com, July 25, 2012.
 See MEMRI TV clip No. 34834, "Saudi Shi'ite Cleric Nimr Al-Nimr Rejoices in the Death of Saudi Crown Prince Nayef: 'He Will Be Eaten by Worms and Suffer the Torments of Hell in His Grave," June 27, 2012, http://www.memritv.org/clip/en/3483.htm
 Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), July 8, 2012.
 Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), July 11, 2012.
 Qanon302.net, July 10, 2012.
 Interior Ministry spokesman Mansour Al-Turki reported that, on July 13, four masked men, presumably Shi'ites, attacked the police headquarters in Al-'Awamiya with gunfire and with a fire bomb, and that one of them was killed by security forces fire. Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), July 14, 2012. The Saudi daily Al-Watan reported that Shi'ite protestors, riding stolen or smuggled motorcycles, were attacking security officers with fire bombs and guns, and that security forces were hunting for the attackers. Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), July 16, 2012. On July 26, a spokesman for the Eastern Province police said that several masked men had been arrested after throwing fire bombs at the Al-Qatif police headquarters following the arrest of an individual involved in drug trafficking. Al-Madina (Saudi Arabia), July 26, 2012. On July 27, Al-Turki said that rioters had set fire to cars in several areas in Al-Qatif, and that some of them had been arrested. Sabq (Saudi Arabia), July 27, 2012. Subsequently he reported that, on August 3, four armed men had shot at a Saudi security patrol in Al-Qatif, killing one officer, and that the patrol had fired back, injuring one of the attackers who died on the way to hospital. Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), August 5, 2012.
 Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), July 16, 2012.
 Rasid.com, July 10, 2012.
 Rasid.com, July 16, 2012.
 Rasid.com, July 14, 2012.
 Rasid.com, July 14, 2012.
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 Abna.ir, July 25, 2012.
 Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), July 16, 2012.
 Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), July 31, 2012.
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 Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), July 11, 2012.
 Al-Sharq (Saudi Arabia), July 18, 2012.
 Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), July 18, 2012.
 Prince Muqrin is the 35th son of King 'Abd Al-'Aziz. Until 1980 he was commander of the Saudi Royal Air Force. Subsequently he served as governor of the Ha'il province and later of the Al-Madina province. In 2005 he became head of General Intelligence; recently, rumors were spread on Twitter that Prince Muqrin had been negligent in fulfilling this role. Al-Akhbar.com, July 21, 2012.
 Alarabiya.net, July 19, 2012.
 Al-Akhbar.com, July 21, 2012.
 Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), July 25, 2012.
 Al-Madina (Saudi Arabia), July 22, 2012.
 Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), July 25, 2012.
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 Yjc.ir, July 17, 2012.
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 See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Report No. 820, "Rising Tensions between Saudi Arabia, Russia on Backdrop of Syrian Crisis," April 4, 2012, http://www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/6246.htm.
 Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), July 12, 2012.
 Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), July 15, 2012.
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 Al-Madina (Saudi Arabia), July 20, 2012.
 Al-Yawm (Saudi Arabia), July 16, 2012.
 Al-Sharq (Saudi Arabia), July 17, 2012.
 Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), July 16, 2012.