Riyadh’s support for US efforts to contain Iranian regional influence will increase risk of Shia militancy in Eastern Province
Any retaliation to security crackdown will be low-level and target security forces and government interests
Limited Islamic State network inside Kingdom will contain groups ability to capitalise on resulting sectarian tensions
Security forces killed six suspected militants and arrested several others in the city of Qatif in Eastern Province, Saudi media reported on 8 January. Officers recovered automatic weapons and grenades during the raid, which local media reported was carried out to detain individuals wanted for disrupting security and “development projects” in the villages of al-Jish and Umm al-Hamam.
Saudi security forces periodically conduct raids against suspected militants in Eastern Province, which is home to the majority of Saudis Shia population and occasionally experiences violent protests. Shia militancy in the province escalated in January 2016 when the prominent Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr was executed alongside 46 others and rose again in 2017 following the launch of a controversial government redevelopment project in May that year. The execution of four Shia individuals two months later on terrorism charges also contributed to heightened tensions. Since then an ongoing security crackdown has helped reduce the tempo of violence. Saudi media described the latest raid as a ‘pre-emptive strike’ but it does not appear to have been triggered by any specific event.
Containing Shia militancy in Eastern Province will be increasingly important for the Government in the coming months due to worsening tensions between the US and Iran. Riyadh’s support for Washingtonâ€™s ongoing attempts to curb Iran’s regional influence will prompt Tehran to increase its support for Shia militants in the Kingdom, particularly in Eastern Province. The recent raid will have been the result of long-running intelligence operations, but it was notably carried out ahead of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Riyadh on 14 January. Pompeo’s visit was part of a tour of Gulf states aimed at reassuring US allies in the region and promoting efforts to contain Iran. Tehran’s concern at the trip was evident when it sent a high-profile delegation to Baghdad on 13 January, intended to ensure its economic ties with Iraq remained secure.
Tehran is likely to respond robustly to any effort by Riyadh to undermine its regional influence, by encouraging Shia militants in the Kingdom to stoke tensions and carry out attacks. The Government will therefore continue to conduct targeted pre-emptive raids in Eastern Province in the hope of disrupting militants’ activities and limiting potential unrest.
Any violence in Eastern Province in the coming months will come primarily in response to the authorities’ crackdown on Shia activists, but resulting attacks will be low-level and target security forces and other government interests. Militants could attempt to strike energy interests, given that much of the Kingdom’s oil and gas infrastructure is situated in the province, but their low capabilities suggest they would struggle to successfully infiltrate secure oil facilities. However, a rise in geopolitical tensions resulting from further US moves to contain Iran will lead Tehran to bolster its support for Shia militants in Eastern Province and so increase their capabilities. In this context, Islamic State (IS) could look to exploit sectarian tensions by targeting the Saudi Shia community, although counter-terrorism operations have weakened the groups ability to develop an extensive network inside the Kingdom and so the risk of a significant IS-linked attack will remain low.