Despite discrimination experienced in Saudi Arabia, the Shiite minority is unlikely to engage again in actions such as the bloody street protests of the 1970s and 1980s.
This is especially the case since “Saudi Shiites are strongly aware of their limited political options” and prefer to seize options offered by the political system and to ally themselves with people intent on changing the Saudi Kingdom through reforms, writes Dutch scholar Leo Kwarten in a monograph published in June by the Conflicts Forum and available online.
Questions about the prospect of an uprising were raised after clashes between Shiite pilgrims and religious police in Medina last February, something that caused resentment in the (oil-rich) Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, where Shiites form a majority in some places, while they make up 10–15 percent of the total Saudi population. The fact that Shiites have been oppressed and discriminated against in various ways for a long time does not help.
Despite some angry calls for secession after the Medina events, most Shiite leaders were eager to reconfirm their loyalty to the government. Doing field research, Kwarten discovered that most Shiite leaders—whom most Western journalists rarely interview—are not dreaming about revolution, but rather about reforms in Saudi Arabia, in order to overcome discrimination against them. They realize that Wahhabis do not make up the majority of the population, despite their strong links with the government, and that followers of other schools of Islam are more numerous.
Thus, Shiite leaders whom Kwarten met feel that supporting reformist politics may bring the desired results and lead to religious and political pluralism over time. Contacts and meetings with liberal Sunni intellectuals have become increasingly frequent. This allows Shiites to make their demands part of a national agenda rather than a sectarian one, a much safer approach, especially considering the developments that have taken place in Iraq in recent years.
(Leo Kwarten, “Why the Saudi Shiites won’t rise up easily,” June 2009, http://conflictsforum.org/2009/why-the-saudi-shiites-won’t-rise-upeasily/)