Since Al-Hasa and Qatif were conquered and annexed into the Emirate of Riyadh in 1913 by Ibn Saud, Shiites in the region had experienced state oppression. Unlike most of Saudi Arabia, Qatif and much of the Eastern Province has a Shiite majority, and the region is also being of key importance to the Saudi government due to it both possessing the bulk of Saudi oil reserves as well as the main Saudi refinery and export terminal of Ras Tanura, which is situated close to Qatif.
Furthermore, despite possessing the bulk of the oil which funds the Saudi state, the region had traditionally been neglected by central government and left undeveloped, with developmental priority being given to Sunni majority areas, with the region particularly lagging in respect to healthcare. Shiite Aramco workers were also paid less than Sunni workers, leading to increased anti-Western feelings. When American jets landed in Dhahran Air Base for manoeuvres, the Shiites organized the biggest demonstration ever. The demonstrators spent the evening of 11 November 1979 shouting slogans against the royal family and the Americans.
With the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, Shiites in the region felt encouraged to try and secure equal treatment as that given to Sunnis. Shiites in Saudi Arabia were very receptive to Ruhollah Khomeini and his attacks on the Saudi royal family on the grounds that Islam and hereditary kingship are not compatible. As a result, 1979 saw a marked increase in the mobilisation of the Shiite community in Saudi Arabia, with demonstrations often being centered around Shiite festivals. The celebration of these festivals, including that of the Day of Ashura, was banned.
Although the Shiite minority was oppressed by the Saudi government, this traditionally was rarely in the form of direct violence against the community. In the lead up to the uprising, due in part to unease about growing discontent within the community, the Saudi security services began to engage in more direct oppression, such as through mass detentions of individuals without trial for many months, serving to increase tension between the Shiite community and the Saudi security apparatus.
The OIR emerged as a force on the eve of the attempted Qatif Uprising in 1979. In the ensuing violence many OIR members and supporters were arrested. The OIR itself claimed that 60 of its members died, 800 were wounded, and that 1,200 were arrested. Following the failed uprising Saffar, along with much of the leadership of the OIR, went into exile in Iran, along with Western Europe and North America. Within Iran most of the exiles tended to congregate in Tehran, where the Saudis constituted the bulk of the students at the Hawza of the Imam of the Age.
In August, Shiite community leaders in Qatif announced that they would publicly celebrate the Day of Ashura festival, despite the fact that celebration of Shiite festivals was banned. Despite government threats to disperse protests, on 25 November 4,000 Shiite in Safwa took to the streets to publicly celebrate the Day of Ashura.
Encouraged by the march in Safwa, protests spread to other parts of the Qatif area, and on the evening of 28 November thousands took to the streets of Saihat, close to Dammam. Protesters shouted anti-regime slogans demanding the abdication of the King, and the protesters advanced on a nearby group of National guardsmen. The violent confrontation with Saudi security forces was led from the protesters end by Hussein Mansur al-Qalaf, a recent graduate from Aramco's Industrial Training Center.
The Saudi National Guardsmen initially controlled the crowd through use of clubs and electric prods, which angered the crowd and was met by protesters throwing stones and wielding bars and wooden canes as weapons. The National Guardsmen then opened fire on the crowd, wounding, amongst others, the 19-year-old Hussein Mansur al-Qalaf.
Qalaf was rushed to the local Saudi Aramco Medical Services Organization by fellow protesters, but was refused treatment by the administration of the facility as they didn't have prior government permission to treat him. He was then taken to the hospital in Qatif, which was more than a half-hour away, but Qalaf had died by the time they reached the hospital. The body was then seized by Saudi security forces, who told the family they would only release the body if the family released a statement blaming Qalaf's death on stones thrown by the protesters. After a week the body was released by the government, despite the lack of a statement from the family, on the condition that there would be no funeral procession and the body would be buried secretly. The family complied with the government conditions.
Following the initial protests and clashes there were numerous other skirmishes between protesters and state security forces, mostly in the Qatif area. These further skirmishes resulted in further deaths, including ten protesters who were fired on by security forces when they attempted to cross over the bridge from Tarout Island to Qatif. There were also reports of random killings resulting from government helicopters firing on protesters and the surrounding neighborhoods.
The protests largely dissipated after 3 December, when large Shia marches were held in Damman and Khobar. The bloody showdown between the armed forces and the Shiites had resulted in thousands of arrests, hundreds of injuries, and 24 deaths.
The Saudi authorities were also busy at the time dealing with the concurrent seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca.
In response to the protest movement the Saudi government acknowledged the poor conditions in Qatif and increased local spending in order to both address these issues and in turn placate the protest movement, with the local administration of Qatif being granted an extra 700 million Saudi Riyals in early December for a new sewage network, alongside 39 million for a street improvement program and 3.25 million for an experiment farm in Qatif. The governor of Al-Hasa also announced an extra 1 billion in spending on various local projects. These projects were only part of a comprehensive plan launched by the Saudi government in order to develop the Qatif region, with other projects including new hospitals, schools, and a Real Estate Development Fund designed to help locals build new homes for themselves also being announced.
The initial government response was largely successful, and Shia groups in the Qatif region largely abandoned the protest movement as well as the idea of challenging the Saudi state. However, although the initial response was promising, the projects main aim was to placate protesters rather than signal a real structural change in the Saudi governments attitudes towards Shiites in the Kingdom.