For almost two years, since February 17, 2011, Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province has seen a protest movement inspired by the Arab Spring that called for democracy, dignity, and more rights for Saudi Arabia’s disenfranchised Shiite minority. The killing of protesters and the arrest and shooting of key oppositional clerics have spurred three cycles of protests. A renewed wave of protests and funerals was set in motion by the killing of 18-year old Ahmad Al Matar on December 27, 2012 in Qatif. Much of the escalation was blamed on the security forces, and especially on the long-serving governor of the Eastern Province, Muhammad bin Fahd.
And on Monday, January 14, the Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz issued a decree relieving the governor of his duties after 28 years « upon his request » and appointing Prince Saud bin Nayef bin Abdul Aziz as the new governor of the Eastern Province.
Muhammad bin Fahd is leaving office in the wake of the largest protests the Eastern Province has seen since an earlier uprising of Saudi Shiites in 1979/1980, which was crushed by the National Guard, leading to several dozen casualties. In Saudi Arabia there are between two and three million Shiites, many of whom live in the Eastern Province, centered around the two oases al-Ahsa and Qatif. For most of the 20th century, the governorship of the Eastern Province had belonged to the bin Jiluwi branch of the Saudi royal family. The governor of the Eastern Province was replaced after the 1979/1980 uprising, much like today’s announcement.
Muhammad bin Fahd became governor of the Eastern Province in 1985, three years after his father had become king. Muhammad bin Fahd was initially installed to bring a new approach to the Eastern Province, and to open a new chapter with the Shiite minority, which at the time had hundreds of political prisoners and a large opposition in exile. Continuing a tradition of a strong independent Imara, or governorship, Muhammad bin Fahd had a say in all matters related to the Eastern Province, and is said to control a significant portion of the province’s economy. The young (born in 1950) and U.S.-educated Muhammad bin Fahd introduced various developmental programs for Shiite areas and all Saudi Shiites arrested since 1979 were released upon his accession. He met more regularly with Shiite notables than his predecessor and sought to win over some of the new Shiite elites and students.
Under his rule, some areas of the Eastern Province were transformed into the economic powerhouses of the country, while others, usually rural areas inhabited by Shiites, were neglected. Over the years it became clear that he would not fundamentally change the second-class status of Shiite citizens. Therefore, Shiite grievances remained, and the Arab Spring galvanized a new generation of local activists. When protests threatened to spread across Saudi Arabia in early March 2011, with a « Day of Rage » planned on Facebook, Muhammad bin Fahd repeatedly met with local notables, clerics, and youth activists to try to persuade them not to protest. This worked to a certain extent, as Shiite clerics and notables issued statements urging the youth not to protest, even though many did protest anyway.
The reshuffle in the Eastern Province has to be seen in part as a response to the protests and the shootings of protesters in the Eastern Province. There are precedents: The governor of the Southern province of Najran was replaced in 2008 after he had cracked down too hard on the local Ismaili Muslims, who unlike the Shiites in the Eastern Province are also members of a powerful tribe. While the removal of Muhammad bin Fahd was a major demand of the protesters in the Eastern Province and should therefore ease tensions there, the problems with the Shiites and with demands for political change voiced by other Saudis are institutional rather than personal. The House of Saud sees any call for political change as an attack and seems incapable of institutional reform. The protests in the Eastern Province are seen purely through a security lens, and will therefore continue to be cracked down upon.
But there are also other issues besides the Eastern Province troubles behind the reshuffles. At the same time as the replacement of Muhammad bin Fahd, Faisal bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz was named governor of Medina. This coincidence points to the importance of the quest for the throne after the passing of the current king, and the enduring power struggle between the grandsons of King Abdulaziz, the founder of what is today known as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Until now, all the kings and crown princes that followed King Abdul Aziz, also known as Ibn Saud, have been his direct sons, but they are dying slowly or are becoming too ill to rule. The reigning monarch King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz is almost 90-years old, and in frail health, and two crown princes, including the long-time Interior Minister Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, have died over the last two years. With the appointment of the 77-year old Salman bin Abdul Aziz as the next crown prince in June 2012, the royal family just delayed the decision about which branch of the next generation of royals it is going to put on the throne.
It now looks like the sons of the former Interior Minister Prince Nayef, who was known as a hardliner at home and was key in Saudi Arabia’s counter-revolutionary strategy in the Arab Spring, are putting themselves in good positions to become crown prince. Muhammad bin Nayef became Interior Minister on November 5, 2012, after a short interregnum by Ahmed bin Abdul Aziz, and his brother Saud bin Nayef is now governor of the strategically important Eastern Province. Saud bin Nayef had previously been ambassador to Spain and most recently headed the court of the crown prince, another important position.
It would be premature to read this as a defeat for Muhammad bin Fahd. Indeed, some argue that he will be appointed to another senior position and he is still a candidate to become crown prince in the future. The by now infamous anonymous Saudi twitterer @mujtahidd, who leaks information from the inner circles of the Saudi royal family, argued that Muhammad bin Fahd wants to become king in the future by allying himself with the Shiites in the Eastern Province. Given his problematic relationship with many Shiites this might seem improbable, but through his extensive business interests and his long reign in the Eastern Province he certainly does have a significant power base. Far from ushering in political change in Saudi Arabia, this reshuffle serves as a reminder that the fight amongst the third generation of Saudi royals has started in earnest. But it also shows how totalitarian the Saudi political system is and that the royal family still dominates almost all senior positions in the state. After all, all regional governors hail from the royal family and appointments are made by royal decree without consultation of the population.
The appointment of a new governor to the Eastern Province therefore offers the possibility of some political change after two difficult years. But little in the behavior of the Saudi regime suggests that the mindset has fundamentally changed. Security concerns continue to predominate, as does antipathy toward Shiites and activists calling for political reform and a constitutional monarchy. The new governor would do well to work toward a genuinely new start if he hopes to avoid replaying the same old patterns of protest, repression, and frustration.