The Criminal Court of Riyadh today sentenced two Saudi citizens on charges of engaging in acts of terrorism and conspiring with Iran and its regional proxies to destabilize Saudi Arabia, the Arab press reported. The individuals, suspected of links with the Iranian-backed Iraqi Hezbollah militia group, were each sentenced to more than 20 years in jail. “The Criminal Court of Riyadh convicted the two citizens because they had joined the terrorism organization,” the newspaper reported, referring to the Iraqi Hezbollah, which operates both in Iraq and Syria and is closely associated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and the Lebanese Hezbollah. “The two citizens were convicted of joining the Iraqi Hezbollah camps in Iran and Iraq. They were trained in how to dismantle, install, and use weapons. They were also trained in how to install and use explosives and bombs for the purpose of carrying out terrorist activities in Saudi Arabia with the intent to cause chaos and undermine Saudi Arabia’s internal security and national unity" Okaz added. 

According to the newspaper, the two individuals were also passing sensitive information about Saudi oil infrastructure in Eastern Province to their affiliates in Iran. “They have also been convicted of harming the public order by communicating through a social media network application with a suspected person in Iran and providing information about the oil pipeline between Saudi provinces in Buqayq [a Saudi Aramco gated community and oil-processing facilities located in the Eastern Province] and Yanbu [a port city on the Red Sea coast of western Saudi Arabia]". 

Comment: The report did not identify the two individuals, but they are most likely Saudi Shiites from the Kingdom’s Eastern Province. It is also plausible that they are members of the Saudi Hezbollah, an Iranian-supported group that has carried out several terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia but has lost its potency and significance lately. 

The eastern region, which is home to Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority, has experienced sporadic periods of antigovernment activism, violence, and at times terrorism for decades. A vast majority of Saudi Shiites are loyal citizens and they have pursued nonviolent means to call for their sociopolitical rights. However, Iran has over the past four decades sought to exploit the Saudi Shiite community’s grievances to further its regional own geopolitical ends and cause trouble for Riyadh. 

Security in the Eastern Province is vital for Saudi Arabia’s economy and for the global energy stability. The region is home to the Kingdom’s major oilfields as well as the Saudi Aramco, the biggest energy company in the world and the backbone of the Saudi economy. 

Before the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, antigovernment activism among Saudi Shiites was predominantly directed by leftist movements such as Communism, Nasserism, and Baathism. But the Islamic revolution in Iran changed the dynamics there as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini sought to export Iran’s revolution across the region. Some Saudi Shiites also felt emboldened and tried to emulate Khomeini’s success to achieve their own goals in the Kingdom. 

But when moderate Shiite leaders in Saudi Arabia, known as Shirazzyin, rejected Iranian call for violence against the Saudi state and left Iran under pressure, the Revolutionary Guards worked with a small radical group of Saudi Shiites to form a terrorist organization called Saudi Hezbollah. 

Under the direction of IRGC commander Ahmad Sharifi, the Saudi Hezbollah, also known as Hezbollah al-Hejaz, was established in 1987. After a government crackdown, most of its leaders fled to Iran, Lebanon, and Syria and shifted their focus on targeting Saudi diplomatic installations abroad, conducting bomb attacks against Saudi embassies from Bangkok to Ankara. The Iranian-backed organization was also reportedly behind the Khobar bombing in Eastern Province in 1996, which killed 19 Americans. And recently, the group has on several occasions threatened to target Saudi oil installations. 

While the Saudi Hezbollah is no longer an active terrorist organization in Saudi Arabia, the IRGC appears to maintain Saudi Hezbollah’s sleeper cells in the Kingdom. 

In recent years, Iran and its allies have been suspected of plotting several acts of sabotage in Saudi Arabia, particularly in the Eastern Province. On August 15, 2012, for example, hackers attacked Saudi Aramco and erased data on three-quarters of its corporate computers, replacing all data with an image of a burning American flag. American intelligence officials alleged that Iran was the real perpetrator in that Iran used its agents within Aramco to stage the attack. The cyber attack showed that with Iranian aid, only a few individuals could do a great deal of damage to the Saudi oil industry.

If tension between Tehran and Riyadh continues to rise, the IRGC and its proxies are likely to plot more acts of sabotage in the Eastern Province, which would have dire consequences for the Kingdom’s stability and the equilibrium of the global oil market.