The arrest in Saudi Arabia of a controversial Shiite cleric has sparked social unrest in the country’s east and condemnations across the region, threatening the largest sectarian flare-up within the Arab World in months.
Nimr Al-Nimr, 53, an outspoken critic of the Al-Saud family, which has ruled Saudi Arabia for over 80 years, was arrested on Sunday near the eastern city of Qatif following a gun battle and police pursuit in which he was wounded in the leg after colliding with a police car.
“Thank God, we have arrested one of rabble-rousers in the town of Awamiya,” Mansour Al-Turki, an interior ministry spokesman, told the Saudi Press Agency (SPA).
Social unrest was largely kept at bay in Saudi Arabia throughout the Arab Spring through generous government subsidies and swift police action against Shiite demonstrators. But dissatisfaction continued to ferment among the Kingdom’s Shiite minority in the east. Constituting 10% of the country’s population of 19 million, Shiites have long complained of discrimination in job allocation in the public sector and the military by Saudi Arabia’s staunchly Sunni ruling family.
Nimr had been arrested by Saudi Authorities for incitement at least twice before since 2006, Al-Jazeera reports. In 2009, he publicly called for two Shiite-majority provinces in eastern Saudi Arabia, Qatif and Ihsaa’, to be annexed to nearby Bahrain, a country with a Shiite majority. In a June 16 sermon posted on the internet, Nimr gloated at the death of Crown Prince Naif bin Abdulaziz.
Nimr’s supporters took to the streets of Qatif Sunday night to protest his arrest. Two demonstrators were killed and ten were wounded in clashes with police. Unnamed sources told the London-based daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi Tuesday that Shiites in the kingdom had agreed to escalate their protest against the central government, and would target state infrastructures, including oil fields.
But Nimr’s arrest has already resounded beyond the borders of Saudi Arabia, mobilizing Shiites across the Middle East. On Monday, Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah condemned Nimr’s “violent arrest” and called on Saudi authorities to release him immediately.
The party demanded that Saudi Arabia “stop its anti-democratic treatment of peaceful, legitimate demands by Saudi citizens,” and stop targeting religious figures “not for a crime committed but merely for demanding a minimum of civil rights.”
Al-Wefaq, a Shiite political bloc in Bahrain, also condemned Nimr’s arrest Tuesday, warning that Nimr’s high profile would lead to further unrest in Saudi Arabia. The movement tried to empty the arrest of its sectarian and religious charge.
“Security measures cannot provide solutions to political, social and economic problems,” Al-Wefaq said in a statement posted on its website.
Criticism of Saudi Arabia’s heavy handedness was not limited to Shiite circles, however. The lead editorial of Al-Quds Al-Arabi Tuesday placed the Saudi regime in the same category as other “Arab Spring” dictators oppressing peaceful demonstrations.
“Clearly, Saudi authorities — like all other Arab governments — will not take this protest wave lightly. They will crush them with force. The proof of this is that security forces did not hesitate to use live ammunition against the protesters in Qatif.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.