February 15, 2012: Police reported that they recently came under fire by masked men in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province. This is a largely Shia area, and witnesses said the police opened fire on a Shia religious procession, killing one person and wounding three. The public Shia religious procession was forbidden, and local Shia blame the police for using violence to try to shut down this "heretical" (according to the dominant Sunni clergy) religious activity.
There has been an increase in Shia demonstrations and public Shia religious activity in the last year. This is largely because the Shia majority in neighboring Bahrain has been protesting against their Sunni rulers. In response to this unrest in the Eastern Province, police have arrested over 500 Shia and many of them are still in prison. Last month, the government published a list of 23 Shia men wanted for being leaders of the unrest. Since then, about half the men on that list have been arrested.
Sunni Arab governments blame Iran for instigating the Shia Arab minority unrest in Saudi Arabia and the Shia Arab majority rebellion in Bahrain. But there has been no hard evidence of Iranian instigation and lots of obvious reasons for Shia unrest. For one thing, Sunni Islamic conservatives have long preached openly against Shia Moslems, calling them heretics and worse. The Saudi government prevents the Sunni fanatics from acting on these beliefs but does not prohibit the preaching. At the same time, open expression of Shia religious practices are forbidden, as is the open practice of any non-Moslem religion in Saudi Arabia. Shia are allowed to have their own mosques, while non-Moslems are forced to pray at home. There has always been tension between Shia and Sunni throughout the Moslem world.
In Bahrain, a Sunni Arab minority has long ruled a Shia Arab majority and this sort of thing is never popular. While the anti-Shia attitude is not nearly as prominent in Bahrain, it is still there. All Iranian media, which can be picked up by Shia in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, has to do is repeat the Shia side of this ancient conflict. Iran, the largest Shia nation on the planet, also believes that Shia Moslems should be the guardians of Mecca and Medina (the most sacred Islamic shrines, which the Saud family and other Sunni clans, have guarded for centuries). It's this Shia-Sunni feud and Iran's historical role as regional superpower, that frightens the Sunni Arab rulers of Arabia.
The Saudis are offering the Shia more economic benefits but this is not eliminating the unrest. The Shia complain of being second-class citizens in Saudi Arabia. There are about two million Shia in Saudi Arabia, most of them in the Eastern Province (where most of the oil is).