As the wave of uprisings swept through North Africa and the Middle East in late 2010 and early 2011, Syrian president al-Assad declared that Syria was “immune” to such events because of the stability of his government.
Within two months of his comments, protestors took to the streets of Syrian cities.
In the months that followed, the nation slid into the morass of a civil war, that is still being waged between the regime and its opponents.
Like most nations of the Middle East, Syrian society is made up of a number of groups with differing tribal and religious loyalties.
While an estimated 75 per cent of Syrians follow the Sunni Muslim faith, the ranks of the regime are dominated by the 12 per cent who follow the Alawite Muslim faith that is aligned to Shia Islam.
Notwithstanding President Assad's claims of stability, this obvious imbalance has intrinsic potential for unrest.
In contrast, the ruling elite of Saudi Arabia is drawn from the 85-90 per cent of the population that follow the Sunni faith.
The 10-15 per cent of Saudis who follow Shia Islam have long complained of oppression and persecution.
The United States Government's International Religious Freedom Report for 2011 found that in Saudi Arabia “Shia face systematic and pervasive official and legal discrimination, including in education, employment, the military, housing, political representation, the judiciary, religious practice, and media.”
Despite these long-simmering concerns, there have been doubts about the ability of Shia in restive provinces of Saudi Arabia to turn their grievances into a movement that could challenge the government.
However one indication that the Saudi Government is concerned about developments within the country is the sudden decision to repeal a religious ruling (fatwa) that prevented Shia from buying land near Sunni families or Sunni villages.
This decision came on the back of reports of increasing unrest and protests which appear to have rattled the ruling Royal family.
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