On July 8th Nimr was confronted by security forces in al-Awamiyah. According to reports from the Interior Ministry, hotly contested by Nimr and his supporters, a firefight ensued when Nimr and the car he was traveling attempted to evade arrest by opening fire on police. He was wounded and then promptly arrested and taken into custody for his role in 'instigating protests and disturbances'. Two other companions in the car were killed by police. Fueled by Nimr's arrest and subsequent hunger strike protests have erupted with renewed intensity across the province.
A significant event occurred on August 4th when for the first time since the protests began, a member of the security forces was killed. According to state information services a security patrol came under heavy fire from 'armed rioters' on a motorbike, killing Hussein Zabani a Saudi Army private. This occurrence though minor, cannot have gone unnoticed by the senior members of the al-Saud. It marked the first time that a member of the security forces was killed by Shia militants in more than two decades.
The prospect of the movement becoming militarized is unlikely at this juncture given the unwillingness of the opposition to embrace violence, and their inability to access substantial weaponry. However Saudi officials have been put on notice that it is not an impossible prospect. If elements within the opposition were to choose to follow this route, there are ample possible conduits to acquite arms. The most obvious would be the possibility of Iranian arms and agents flowing to their co-coreligionists in the province and in Bahrain. Another and oft overlooked route would be association with militant Shia groups in southern Iraq. In any event, both are eventualities that the Saudi government is keen to avoid.
After nearly two years of protest it has become apparent that the opposition movement and its agitations are unlikely to subside absent massive reprisals or some conciliation on the part of the Saudi crown towards their demands. Thus far neither option has been seen as particularly appealing, the former because of the feared loss of legitimacy and discontent it might generate, the latter because of ingrained discriminatory attitudes and a desire to placate more conservative elements in Saudi society. Never the less as the protest movement seems poised to enter its second year it might behoove the al-Saud to begin considering ways to placate the opposition, especially as it seems likely that new leadership will occupy the Saudi throne in the near future.
Joshua Jacobs is a Gulf Policy Analyst and published columnist at the Institute for Gulf Affairs.