Writing in Al-Monitor, Haytham Mouzahem provides a useful breakdown of the different Saudi Shia opposition groups:
As a result of the Islamic revolution in Iran, Iraqi cleric Ayatollah Mohammad Shirazi (1928-2008) formed a revolutionary organization in 1979 to promote the Islamic revolution in Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula. Shortly afterward, Sheikh Hassan al-Saffar, another senior Saudi Shiite cleric in Qatif who was a follower of Shirazi, formed the Organization of the Islamic Revolution in the Arabian Peninsula as a Saudi branch of Shirazi’s Organization of Islamic Action to oppose the Saudi regime. Saffar and his comrades escaped from the kingdom to Iran following the 1979 Muharram uprising in Qatif, and they remained for more than a decade in Tehran and London until there was a reconciliation with the Saudi regime in 1993. Then, most of those Saudi activists returned to the kingdom.
After Shirazi died in 2008, his followers split into four main currents. They include:
• Al-Saffar current: Due to political differences with Shirazi’s organization and the Iranian leadership, Saffar left the Shirazi movement and has been following the moderate Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Saffar’s grouping has become the most influential current and is seeking reform, tolerance and openness. This group wants to see the end of discrimination against Shiites and the improvement of environmental, economic and social conditions in Qatif and al-Ahsa.
• Al-Nimr current: This is the main Shirazi following in Saudi Arabia, and is headed by Sheikh Nimr, who has differences with Saffar’s position toward the Saudi regime. Nimr was described as radical while Al-Saffar, described as moderate, has opened a dialogue with authorities.
• A third current is called the London opposition because its activists have been based in London. Its main figures are Hamza Hassan and Fouad Ibrahim. This group has refused to take a restrained approach with Saudi officials, which it says did not respect a 1993 agreement with the Shiite opposition to grant it religious and political rights, end religious and socioeconomic discrimination and promote political reform in the kingdom.
As the protest movement in Qatif gained more momentum over the past two years, it was al-Nemer’s current that began to rise while al-Saffar’s current has become seen as increasingly irrelevant because the government resorted to force in crushing the movement. This has left the moderates in a difficult position: The government appeared no longer interested in engaging them, and people on the street began to view them as weak and craven.