The OIR had its roots in the Shia Reform Movement in Saudi Arabia, which had been founded by al-Saffar in 1975 and advocated improving conditions for Shiites in Saudi Arabia through gradual reform within Saudi Arabia.
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 1980 the OIR began publishing a monthly magazine in London known as The Islamic Revolution Magazine (Majallat al-Thawra al-Islamiya). This magazine was the main means by which the group announced its social and cultural activities.
For most of the 1980s the OIR maintained a line of strict opposititon to the Saudi government, and refused any negotiations with the Saudi establishment. In 1987 the group was allegedly was involved in the Mecca riots.