Frederic Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace was in Saudi Arabia’s restive Eastern Province last month. He says it is unclear what (if anything) has really changed since the protest movement there started in March 2011:
For their part, older Shia activists and intellectuals admire the youths’ zeal, but lament their lack of a program and organization. An attempt to unite disparate groups in the East into a “Freedom and Justice Coalition” has largely floundered. Further, the plethora of Facebook pages for other groups belies a degree of structure and coherence that does not actually exist on the ground. Some criticize youths’ naiveté in thinking that localized dissent by a sectarian minority can spark a Tahrir-style movement; “We are a minority, we are a province, we can’t spark a revolution,” noted one. Others disagree, pointing out that the demand for the release of political prisoners—originally started in the East—has become a national, cross-sectarian movement; Sunni activists in the Salafi stronghold of Qassim have since mounted concerted protests demanding the release of outspoken clerics. Young Shia activists argue that, whether they acknowledge it or not, these Sunni figures are actually inspired by the outspokenness and protest culture of the Eastern Province.