Saudi Arabia has largely avoided the Arab revolutions through a combination of repression and a major welfare payout. But that could be about to change as mass protests erupt in the eastern provinces.
Two men were shot dead last week by security forces after an explosion of anger at the arrest of leading Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr.
Videos circulated online show amazing footage of masked youths hurling Molotov cocktails at police cars and attempting to break into local government buildings.
Saudi Arabia has become increasingly unstable in recent weeks since the death of Nayef al-Saud, the kingdom’s crown prince who effectively ran the country for more than 30 years.
Nimr has long been a critic of the ruling Saud family. A warrant was issued for his arrest in 2009. Saudi’s rulers are acutely aware that the eastern province, home to the country’s Shia minority, is also where the most lucrative oilfields lie.
This is not the first time the Shia minority has tried to make its voice heard in the past year. But the arrest of Nimr could transform the situation. He was injured during his arrest. If anything further were to happen to him, there could be an explosion of anger that would be much harder to contain.
Meanwhile in neighbouring Bahrain, demonstrators continue to take to the streets despite a blanket ban by the authorities on all protests.
Last week Bahrain’s main opposition parties released a joint statement describing the current crackdown as an “unannounced state of emergency”.
Nabeel Rajab, a leading human rights figure, was arrested by masked men and sentenced to three months in prison for a sending a tweet. The opposition Amal party has been dissolved by the state.
Gulf leaders wished to pretend that the Arab Spring had never taken place. But the region’s combination of resilient people and repressive regimes will continue to be an explosive mixture.