JEDDAH // Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah appointed Prince Saud bin Nayef as governor of the Eastern Province, the royal court said today.
The Eastern Province is where minority Shiites have held protests over the past two years calling for more rights and the release of jailed relatives.
"Prince Mohamad bin Fahad bin Abdulaziz is relieved of his duties as the governor of the Eastern Province, upon his request, and Prince Saud bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz ... is appointed governor of the Eastern province," the statement said.
The newly appointed Prince Saud is the interior minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef's older brother. After serving as ambassador to Spain, Prince Saud was recalled to Riyadh to serve at the court of his late father, Crown Prince Nayef, who was also an interior minister.
Activists in the Eastern Province said it was not clear yet if the change in leadership would have an impact on policy in the region, where much of the country's oil industry is based.
"It is a significant change. But to my knowledge in the upper echelons of the state, the view of Qatif is very much influenced by security issues," said Tawfiq Al Seif, a leader of the Shiite community in Saudi Arabia, referring to the town where most of the Eastern Province protests have taken place.
At least 12 people were killed in the province last year.
Some Qatif activists accuse the government of crushing the protests by shooting at demonstrators, intimidating residents with constant armed patrols, and detaining people without laying charges or bringing them to trial.
Saudi authorities say they do not discriminate against Shiites, pointing to King Abdullah's efforts to include them in the advisory Shura Council and to his foundation this year of a centre to study different Islamic sects.
They also reject charges of heavy handed policing, saying all the shootings this year have occurred after police came under attack by rioters.
They have accused Iran of stirring up the unrest, a charge Iran denies.