Shiite Protesters in Saudi Arabia
Shiite Protesters in Saudi Arabia Reuters

Al Qaeda chief Ayman Al Zawahri last Thursday urged Saudis to rise up against the kingdom's ruling Al Saud family.

Egyptian-born Zawahri, who took over the leadership of Al Qaeda after Saudi arch-terrorist Osama Bin Laden was killed in Pakistan by US forces last year, invoked the 'Arab Spring' in his call. 

"Muslim brothers in the land of the holy mosques, a year has passed since the uprising of the Arab people against their dear brothers why do you still accept to be ruled by the Al Saud family," Zawahiri said in a video posted on an Islamist website.

"They are one of the worst corrupt governments who steal your money," he said. "Why don't you rise up [against the Al Sauds] as you are the companions of the Prophet?"

Saudi Arabia has confronted its own Arab Spring with a combination of carrot and stick - occasional live fire to decisively end demonstrations and a big public spending package.

While the world's largest oil exporter has largely succeeded in riding out the storm, its eastern province - which has a large Shiite population - has seen sporadic demonstrations since March last year.

In November four people were killed, according to the Interior Ministry and activists. Riyadh asserts - like its Gulf Arab allies - that Shiite Persian Iran is stirring up unrest in a bid to destabalize the monarchy.

Protesters' demands have focused on political reform in the mainly Sunni kingdom, with calls to improve life for the country's Shiite minority, and the release of political prisoners. 

According to activists, security forces have arrested and released around 500 people over the prostests, of whom 80 are still incarcerated.

Zawahiri's call underscores the difficult position the slowly-reforming and business-minded Saudi monarchy finds itself in vis-a-vis the rising tide of political Islam that characterizes the Arab Spring.

Al Qaeda has been behind a virilent Islamist terror campaign in neighborning Yemen. US military and intelligence officials have used Saudi Arabia as a staging ground for an expanding drone strike campaign targeting the terror group there.