Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Shia in Saudi Arabia

Shiites march in a funeral procession after deadly attacks on Shia mosques by IS, carrying signs of protest against Wahhabism, in Tarut, Saudi Arabia, 30 March 2015. Photo Hasam Jamali

The Arab Spring of 2011 resurrected an old challenge to the Gulf monarchies. Fearing coups and international pressure to democratise the Middle East, royal elites from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) hired sectarian identity entrepreneurs to recycle an old danger, colloquially known as “The Shia threat.” The mythological aspect of this danger goes back to the old Sunni-Shia schism in 680 AD, when Husayn ibn Ali, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, revered by Shia Muslims, was killed in the Battle of Karbala.

While Shia Muslims regard the descendants of the Prophet Muhammad as his rightful successors, Sunnis consider the rule of Abu Bakr, a friend of the Prophet, as the true caliph. Husayn’s killing by Sunni soldiers at Karbala cemented this split and became a symbol of matyrdom that shaped the Shia identity.  Theological discrepancies do exist between Sunni’s and Shia’s adherence to Islamic law, but the two sects have co-existed peacefully for centuries.

Oil is an integral aspect of the story of Shia’s oppression in Saudi Arabia, just as essential as an ingredient in the bad marriage that is the US-Saudi relationship, a complex and often strained alliance. Saudi Arabia is the second largest producer of oil in the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), a group of nations that control around 80 percent of the world’s supply. Most of Saudi Arabia’s oil is located in the Eastern Province, and  a third of the inhabitants of the Eastern Province in Saudi Arabia are Shia. In the whole kingdom, Shia only amount for 5 to 20 percent of the total population.

This means that a large portion of the world’s oil supply – almost a fifth – is located under a Shia majority territory, in a majorly Sunni country. Wahhabism, a branch of ultraconservatist Sunni Islam, is certainly a visible element in the oppression of Shia minorities in the Kingdom. However, the complex role that oil plays in the Sunni-Shia conflict is often neglected.

Rising demands for the democratisation of Saudi Arabia, like upholding human rights and other shared goals of the international community, include reforming policies pertaining to its Shia minorities. Policy changes, however, necessitate infrastructural modifications. It would make sense for the kingdom to undergo this change as it would severe its Shia’s sense of belonging to Iran, a Shia-majority neighbour. But genuine efforts to eradicate the status of Shia in Saudi Arabia as second class citizens would require massive amounts of money – money that is currently given to Sunnis.

In other words, improving the status of the Shia minority will come at the expense of the standard of living of the Sunni majority, which has been systematically indoctrinated to hate and fear Shias. This, in turn, threatens the Gulf’s stability, especially as Iran and Saudi Arabia engage in military and diplomatic skirmishes across the region, for example in the Syrian civil war, where Iran is backing the Assad government while Saudi Arabia supports the Sunni rebels.

Second, there is a fear that empowering the Shia in Saudi Arabia would mean equipping them with the necessary resources to separate from the country, whereas at present, Shia secession is only an empty slogan tossed around in rallies. With an important portion the world’s oil reserve lying below the Eastern Province, a Shia secession from Saudi Arabia would alter the power-dynamics of the Middle East and empower their Shiite neighbor, Iran.

Saudi Arabia and Iran were not always rivals. In the 1960s, they cooperated to curb Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arabism and the Soviet expansion in the region. In the early 1970s, they were hailed by U.S. President Richard Nixon as the “twin pillars” of the Persian Gulf, whereby both countries played vital roles in maintaining peace: Iran to police the region and Saudi Arabia – the custodian of Islam’s holiest places – to legitimise cooperation with the West. In 1979, Iran’s Islamic revolution drove change in the region by placing the country’s power in the hands of Shia clerics. Their leader, the ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, swore in 1981 to export Iran’s revolution to the whole world. The Iranian regime then lent its support to Shia followers in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.

In the months following the Iranian revolution, Iran’s Shia and Sunni clerics began to criticize the Gulf monarchy. They were strengthened in their dissent by the fundamentalist attack on the Grand Mosque in Mecca. On November 28, 1979, Shia in parts of the Eastern Province attempted to observe Ashura in public. Ashura is a passion play reenacting the death of the Prophet’s grandson Husayn at Karbala, a commemoration Shia Muslims usually observe in the private sphere, as the kingdom does not grant rights to freedom of religion. (As early as the 1920s, the Wahhabi clerics who were hostile to the local Shia, demanded that they be forcibly converted to Sunni Islam.)

Months after Ayatollah Khomeini incited Shia minorities in the region to rise up against their governments like the Iranians, the Shia’s public observance of Ashura was viewed by the Saudis as a national security threat. The Saudi National Guard were called to quell the mourning celebrations, causing riots that resulted in death for a dozen Shia protestors. Protests by Shia activists bore similarities with the Sunni fundamentalist group that followed Juhayman al-Otaybi’s criticism of Saudi Arabia during his occupation of the Grand Mosque.

Shia protestors stigmatised the kingdom’s affiliation with and dependency on the West, governmental corruption, and deviation from strict Islamic mores. On the other hand, they diverged from the Sunni protestors in another demand. In 1979, they specifically called for a cessation of oil production and a redistribution of oil wealth in a more equitable measure between Sunnis and Shia citizens. Tension with Iran escalated in the 1980s, when the Saudi regime supported Saddam Hussein’s war with Iran.

In 1987, Saudi Arabia suspended diplomatic ties with Iran for four years after hundreds of Iranian pilgrims were killed during hajj season in Mecca. Iran boycotted the hajj from 1988 to 1990. After a restoration of order following the Shia uprising, the Saudi government promised to  local spending to upgrade infrastructure in the Eastern Province.

As money flowed into the area to elevate the material living standard of its inhabitants, rights were also gradually amended from 1993. For instance, Shia judges presiding over courts in the Eastern Province were allowed to use the Jafari school of Islamic jurisprudence, a branch of Shia Islam, to resolve cases in “family law, inheritance, and endowment management.” While this was an improvement, it meant that Shia living in other parts of the Eastern Province, the Najran Province and the western Hejaz region were unable to access these Shia courts, whether local, regional or national.

In “The Other Saudis: Shiism, Dissent and Sectarianism”, Toby Matthiesen writes that this deal struck in 1993 between the Saudi state and a select group of Shia representatives successfully “silenced the most outspoken media outlets abroad, coopted many opposition activists and placed them under surveillance of the security services.” He further elucidates: “By not fundamentally altering the situation of the Shia, it also put the shirazi leaders in an awkward position.” In other words, the amendments that occurred in the early 1990s were strategically focused on dividing the Shia opposition and coopting some of its leaders. As a result, it contributed to variances in the standard of living among the Shia population of Saudi Arabia.

Furthermore, there are only six Shia judges permitted to preside over Saudi courts, and they were expected to tow very fine lines. Sheikh Hassan Bu Khamseen, for example, was dismissed from his position in 2010 for criticizing a government’s judicial decree. Another weakness in this timeline of Sunni-Shia progress is the validity or strength of the Shia courts. Saudi Shia complain that their courts lack genuine authority, as litigants who disagree with verdicts can easily reopen cases in Sunni courts – who are endowed with the power to annul Shia ruling. Shia are also disqualified as witnesses in Sunni courts.

Second, while Shia are not exactly prohibited from building and managing mosques, the process for obtaining a government license is arbitrary and fraught with complications. Sunni clerics can petition the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Endowments, Call, and Guidance (MOIA) for financial aid, whereas their Shia counterparts are expected to seek economic assistance from their own congregations. Other compromises that Shia clerics and believers have to make include reciting the Sunni prayer when the mosque is in a mixed neighborhood, and closing their shops or breaking from work for the five prayer times even though Shia followers combine the five prayers together into three, meaning that they do not, theologically speaking, need to stop working every time a Sunni prayer call is sounded.

Caps and arbitrary restrictions remain in other sectors. For instance, in higher education, sectarian bias surfaces in the process of selecting students for scholarships and public universities, as well as in selecting academic and administrative employees for educational institutions. It is also present in employment opportunities and in advancement once these opportunities are realized, as there are very few openly identified Shia in high-level positions in companies and agencies owned by the government.

Finally, there is both progress and obstruction in political representations, even today. According to Global Security: “There were no Shia ministers, deputy ministers, governors, deputy governors, or ministry branch directors in the Eastern Province, and only three of the 59 government-appointed municipal council members were Shia. However, the Shia were well-represented among the elected members of the municipal councils, as they held 10 of 11 seats on the Qatif and al-Ahsa councils. An elected Shia headed the Qatif municipal council. With five Shia on the Consultative Council they were significantly underrepresented.”

In short, while historical and theological antipathies do exist, it is rather Saudi Arabia’s political expediency that both prevents and advances equality between Shia and Sunnis. A major contradiction in Saudi policy is the response to the 2015 IS (Islamic State) attacks on Shia mosques in the kingdom. For the last decades, Saudi Arabia has allowed its government-sponsored Sunni clerics to demonize Shia believers, associate them with polytheists, therefore consolidating a history of oppression and ostracism from basic civil rights. On the other hand, the country denounced the attacks on Shia mosques, has led the campaign against IS and formed an alliance among 34 Muslim nations – excluding Iran.

This duality of leading the battle against an extremist Islamist group that demonizes Shia and views them as deviants, while nurturing and exporting Wahhabism, another group of radical Islamists with similar views about Shia, can be witnessed in the case of Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, a Shia Sheikh who criticised the Saudi state, who was executed with 46 other activists in early 2016. This event reignited protests by Saudi Shia against the state. It has been suggested that the sentencing meant to demonstrate the state’s equal response to acts of terror (or inciting revolutions), whether they come from Shia or Sunni activists.

To begin comprehending the delicate situation of the Shia in Saudi Arabia, it is best to keep the words of Toby Matthiesen in mind, who explains, in Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Spring That Wasn’t, the strategies of sectarianism employed by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies at the start of the Arab Spring: “Sectarianism was not just a government intervention but the result of an amalgam of political, religious, social and economic elites who all used sectarianism to further their own aim.”