Shi‘is in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have watched Iraq’s political transformation with a combination of horror and optimism. Iraq’s slide toward civil war, the carnage wrought by militant violence and the targeted slaughter of thousands of Iraqi Shi‘is by Sunni insurgents have sown fears among Shi‘a in the kingdom that they might be the next to suffer bloodshed. Their worries are not unwarranted. They live in a sea of sectarian hostility, where the Sunni government and its clerical backers have long made clear their antipathy for the Muslim minority sect.

The violence in Iraq has led Saudi Arabian Shi‘is to distance themselves from the war and the US role in bringing Iraqi Shi‘is to power. Even so, the new political dynamic there has fed a growing opportunism, feelings set in motion by both domestic and regional events. Many now believe that with the recent accession of King Abdallah, who is widely viewed as sympathetic to Shi‘is, and with the balance of power shifting in the region, resolution of long-standing Shi‘a grievances may finally be achievable. Shi‘is demand inclusion in formal politics, the right to observe religious rituals and the right to move their struggle against the extreme anti-Shi‘ism that permeates society and is condoned by the state into the public sphere.

As many as two million Shi‘is live in Saudi Arabia, where they make up between 10–15 percent of the population. [1] Although some live in the cities of Mecca, Medina and Riyadh, the majority of Shi‘is are concentrated in the two oases of Qatif and al-Hasa in the kingdom’s Eastern Province, a region that is also home to most of Saudi Arabia’s massive oil reserves. Most Saudi Arabian Shi‘is are from the “Twelver” branch that claims the majority of the world’s Shi‘a; they believe that the last successor to the Prophet Muhammad as religio-political leader of Muslims was the twelfth imam who went into occultation in the ninth century. A smaller community of around 100,000 Isma‘ilis, who observe an offshoot of Shi‘ism that traces imamic descent from the seventh imam, makes its home in Najran near the southern border with Yemen.

The Shi‘is’ sense of vulnerability is easy to understand. Although sectarian violence has only been episodic in the twentieth century, leading religious scholars in the kingdom have denounced Shi‘a as apostates, and since the founding of Saudi Arabia in 1932 have periodically called for their extermination. Historically, Saudi leaders have done little to tone down anti-Shi‘a rhetoric and at times have manipulated the sentiment that fuels it. Until the end of the twentieth century, the kingdom’s rulers preferred publicly to ignore the Shi‘is’ existence. The nationalist narrative popularized in recent years in various media, including the press, national television, historical texts and most visibly a series of exhibits displayed at an annual Riyadh fair called the Janadiriyya, spotlights the “heroic” efforts of the kingdom’s founder, ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, in bringing together warring tribes. It scarcely mentions the Shi‘a. [2] But recent events have made this erasure untenable.

With Iraq possibly disintegrating along sectarian lines and hundreds and perhaps thousands of Saudi Arabian Sunnis taking part in the anti-occupation and anti-Shi‘a insurgency, many in Saudi Arabia fear that the spread of sectarian violence is just a matter of time. Remarkably, the Shi‘is’ anticipation that they will eventually be targeted by their fellow countrymen and the widely held belief that Saudi rulers have abetted, if not actually supported, sectarian violence have not altered the Shi‘is’ pursuit of rapprochement and cooperation with the state.

In recent years, liberal-minded and even Sunni Islamist reformers in the kingdom have welcomed Shi‘is as part of a small but vocal reform lobby that has pressed Saudi Arabia’s rulers for the expansion of political rights and greater religious tolerance. Some Saudi leaders, particularly King Abdallah, have given Shi‘is reason for hope by cautiously supporting the community’s call for greater rights and an end to systemic discrimination. But it is not clear how much support there is within the Al Saud for relief for the embattled minority. Inasmuch as the Shi‘i ascendancy in Iraq has emboldened their co-religionists in Saudi Arabia, it has also intensified anti-Shi‘ism in the kingdom. Most obviously, although it does not manifest itself openly, there is support for the anti-Shi‘a and anti-occupation violence, as many Saudi Arabians consider the US occupation and the Iraqi Shi‘a ascendancy one and the same. Perhaps more importantly, the belief in the kingdom that Iran is playing an increasingly active role in shaping Iraqi politics is resuscitating old animosities about a pan-Shi‘i threat, a trend that does not bode well for regional security or for Shi‘is living in Saudi Arabia.

A Savior from the Al Saud?

Setting aside decades of political oppression, suffering and their distrust of the royal family in general, most Shi‘is embraced Abdallah when he ascended to the throne in early August 2005. Many consider him the best hope for much needed political and social reform as well as the only likely champion for tolerance in a country better known for its religious virulence and fanatical anti-Shi‘ism. A community leader from Qatif said that endorsements for the new king rang out from the pulpits of mosques and the daises of community centers (husseiniyyas) across the region. A busload of clerics, religious scholars and other political figures even trekked to Riyadh to pay homage to the new monarch and pledge loyalty after his predecessor’s death. On the widespread and very public support for Abdallah’s succession, an activist remarked: “I have never seen anything like it.” [3]

In spite of the embrace of the new king, however, the Shi‘i community remains deeply skeptical of the kingdom’s rulers and their willingness or ability to deal genuinely and effectively with the challenge of sectarianism. Even Abdallah, who has supported Shi‘is in the past, is viewed as insufficiently proactive, a potentially critical but conservative ally who must be prodded to act. A Shi‘i activist noted that while the new king is compassionate, he “responds to rather than initiates discussions about community grievances.” Abdallah has been the focal point of Shi‘i communal advocacy since 2003, when he received a delegation bearing a petition signed by 450 Shi‘i men and women entreating him for help in rolling back “fanatical sectarian tendencies stimulating hatred,” protecting Shi‘a from official and unofficial forms of discrimination, and securing Shi‘i representation in local and national government. With talk of reform more open since then, Shi‘is have become more aggressive in pursuing their interests and more shrewd in using Abdallah’s public embrace of tolerance and pluralism as an excuse to align him with their interests, which they achieve by emphasizing whenever possible that he is their defender.

The Shi‘i political strategy is not new. Since the early 1990s, the most popular political network, the Shi‘a Islamic Reform Movement headed by Hasan al-Saffar, has promoted improved relations with the ruling family and Saudi Arabian Sunnis. Shi‘i leaders have emphasized that the rebelliousness that dominated the community’s politics in previous decades, resulting in widespread violence in November and December 1979, was not an effective instrument for resolving Shi‘a grievances. [4]

Their strategy held true to form in the weeks after King Fahd’s death. Within two months of his accession, King Abdallah hosted two significant meetings with different Shi‘a delegations, who quickly mobilized to support the new sovereign and press him to move more boldly. In mid-August, Saffar headed a mission of activists and leaders from the Eastern Province to Jidda to meet with the new regent. There, Saffar, who has guided the Shi‘a community since the late 1970s, and the other delegates offered personal oaths of loyalty (bay‘a) as well as their commitment to the Saudi Arabian nation. The delegates also used the meeting to plead for amnesty for political prisoners who have languished in Saudi prisons since the mid-1990s, and to remind the monarch of the need for ongoing efforts to end anti-Shi‘ism. [5]

On September 17, 2005, five Isma‘ili leaders from Najran met with Abdallah and added their own pledges of loyalty. Emboldened by Abdallah’s comment immediately after his accession that he sought “prayer and advice” and desired to instill “the principles of justice and equality among [Saudi Arabians] without distinguishing between them,” they also delivered a respectful letter filled with demands. The five first appealed for opportunities to “serve the nation,” asking directly for enhanced roles in and an end to their exclusion from the “highest institutions in the country including the Council of Ministers, the Majlis al-Shura [Consultative Council], the Royal Court and the Foreign Ministry.”

While there is little reason to doubt the sincerity of the letter writers’ interest in greater involvement in government, the letter’s main objective was to highlight continued frustration with anti-Isma‘ili discrimination and plead with Abdallah to end punitive state policies directed against them. Most importantly, the petition asked for amnesty for political prisoners jailed in 2000 following lethal violence between the authorities and residents in Najran. In April of that year, the governor of Najran dispatched security forces to the al-Mansura mosque, the main Isma‘ili center of learning, where they arrested Sheikh Ahmad bin Muhammad al-Khayyat, a cleric and teacher who was subsequently imprisoned on charges of sorcery. In the clashes that followed, protesters killed at least one security officer and wounded several others. But it was the Isma‘ili community that endured the harshest suffering. Security forces killed two protesters and arrested hundreds of others, many of whom alleged torture at the hands of their captors. Two years after the unrest, King Fahd pardoned an unknown number of prisoners, halved the jail terms for 70 others and commuted the death sentences of 17 to ten years in jail. [6]

In addition to the hardnosed police response, Saudi officials expelled thousands of Isma‘ilis from Najran, forcing them to relocate to other regions, where they remain today, forbidden from returning home. The government’s attempt to break up Isma‘ili social and cultural cohesion in the south echoed similar efforts at manipulation of sectarian demography throughout the twentieth century, including attempts to dilute the numerical strength of Shi‘is in the Eastern Province by displacing them or flooding the region with settlers from elsewhere in the kingdom. Claiming that many of their exiles had grown old, feeble and impoverished, the Najran petitioners called for their return on humanitarian grounds. For the remainder, they cited the need for qualified people and local leadership to return to the region in order to reduce unemployment and aid those forced into poverty.

As was the case with Saffar’s delegation, the 2005 meetings were not the first of their kind between Abdallah and the Isma‘ilis. In April 2001, a year after the violence in Najran, a handful of Isma‘ili activists met with the then crown prince in Jidda, where they beseeched him to protect the region from what they believed were attempts by the local governor, Prince Mish‘al, and Interior Minister Prince Nayif to impose a system of apartheid that discriminated against the Isma‘ilis, a reference to the expulsion of thousands the year before. Furthermore, they claimed that the two princes were working directly to provoke a confrontation between the region’s Shi‘is and Sunni radicals by inundating Najran with Wahhabi mosques and schools and defaming Isma‘ili beliefs. Reports of the meeting, which reportedly upset Prince Nayif, landed several of the activists in prison in spite of an alleged promise by Abdallah that he would address their grievances. Abdallah eventually intervened to orchestrate their release, although he was unable to order the right of return for those expelled from Najran the previous year to secure the release of the remaining prisoners.

Abdallah’s willingness to meet with both groups of Shi‘i activists after becoming king demonstrated his continued engagement with the beleaguered minority. More importantly, that he permitted the details of the meetings to be disclosed publicly, although they were barely commented upon inside the kingdom, sent a clear signal to Shi‘i bashers that Abdallah remains committed in principle to the pursuit of Islamic pluralism within Saudi Arabia, an objective he made a centerpiece of a national unity and national dialogue campaign he launched in 2003. But in spite of appearances, it remains to be seen if Abdallah is willing or able to effect significant change. The king no doubt understands that while perception matters, it has little bearing on political reality in Saudi Arabia.

The Politics of Hostility

Whatever Abdallah’s actual interest in a campaign to roll back sectarian enmity in Saudi Arabia, he did little as crown prince to achieve comprehensive results. Shi‘is enjoy only a few more rights than in the past. Most important is the ability to observe the ‘Ashura holiday on the Tenth of Muharram, the holiest Shi‘a holiday and the anniversary of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein. Restrictions have eased on the building of Shi‘a mosques. But the most severe forms of discrimination, including the unfettered publication of anti-Shi‘a religious texts, anti-Shi‘ism in schools, restrictions on employment in the government and in private business, and the royal family’s refusal to include Shi‘is in representative numbers in its national institutions, such as the Majlis al-Shura, a quasi-legislative body that advises the monarch, where four out of the 150 members are Shi‘is, remain firmly in place. There are powerful reasons to doubt that Abdallah can achieve more as king.

It is not at all clear that Abdallah’s support for greater tolerance is widely shared within the royal family or that he even considers it a political priority. While he has been nominally in charge of running the state’s affairs since his brother and predecessor Fahd suffered a stroke in 1995, Abdallah hardly enjoys free rein to do as he pleases. Rivals, including his half-brothers Sultan (the crown prince), Nayif and Salman (the governor of Riyadh), wield considerable authority and restrain the king’s ability to forge ahead with what they may see as risky or disagreeable measures. Considering that anti-Shi‘ism retains a powerful grip on popular thought in Saudi Arabia, a grip rendered tighter by the Iraq war, directly confronting sectarian animosity is fraught with uncertainty. So ingrained is the hostility for Shi‘is in Saudi Arabia that leaders in the royal family, even if they are interested in dealing with the phenomenon, are unable to root out anti-Shi‘i ideologues in powerful state bureaucracies and non-governmental organizations, let alone stem the production of hate materials and their dissemination.

The roots of such hatred are directly traceable to the state’s historical reliance on a particularly austere interpretation of Islam, Wahhabism, for its political authority. But the commanding, normative power that anti-Shi‘ism enjoys today is more the result of political decisions made by the government in the late 1970s and 1980s, when Saudi leaders feared the rise of Shi‘a Iran under Ayatollah Khomeini, who directly threatened Saudi rulers by encouraging coups, loudly broadcast his desire to export the Islamic Revolution and sparked a decade-long security crisis in the region. Although Khomeini played no direct role in fostering domestic unrest inside Saudi Arabia, the Islamic Revolution did help galvanize civil disobedience by the kingdom’s Shi‘a in 1979.

To counter the perceived Khomeinist threat, Saudi Arabia threw its weight behind ideological efforts that excoriated the Shi‘a as a global enemy (like the Soviets in Afghanistan) and damned what they viewed as un-Islamic Shi‘i political and theological principles. These efforts included the publication and distribution of key monographs exploring the theological and political justifications for anti-Shi‘ism, including a broad assault on Shi‘a theology written by Ibrahim Sulayman al-Jabhan in 1980, entitled Removing the Darkness and Awakening to the Danger of Shi‘ism to Muslims and Islam. [7] Jabhan’s book was licensed by the office of the highest religious authority in Saudi Arabia. Other tracts followed throughout the 1980s, including a series of malicious volumes by the vitriolic Pakistani author Ihsan Ilahi Zahir, The Shi‘a and the Sunna, The Shi‘a and the Qur’an, The Shi‘a and the Prophet’s Family and a stand-alone screed against Isma‘ilis.

Even after Khomeini’s death and an improvement in Saudi-Iranian relations, the production of anti-Shi‘a material continued apace. In the early 1990s, Nasir al-‘Umar, a particularly vicious Sunni cleric, wrote a treatise called “The Rafida in the Land of Tawhid.” Rafida, or rawafid, is a pejorative term meaning “rejectionists,” a reference to how radical Sunnis consider the Shi‘a to be outside Islam. Religious edicts (fatawa) issued by other well-known clerics, including several by Abdallah bin Abd al-Rahman al-Jibrin — then a member of the Higher Council of ‘Ulama — condoned and even mandated the killing of Shi‘is. As late as 2002, a leading Saudi Arabia-based charity, the International Islamic Relief Organization, circulated a pamphlet entitled One Hundred Questions and Answers on Charitable Work in the Eastern Province. The pamphlet contained passages slandering the Shi‘a as apostates and called for efforts to “get rid of their evil.” [8]

The Bogeyman Returns

The Iraq war has stoked sectarian ill will. Internet discussion forums popularized by Saudi Arabian visitors are full of vitriolic denunciations of Shi‘is inside the kingdom and out. At least one website supportive of Sunni jihadis reported a widely believed rumor that militants planned to kill the Shi‘a cleric Hasan al-Saffar during ‘Ashura in 2004. Similar threats may have been leveled at Shi‘a communities in Bahrain and Kuwait in 2005. [9]

Most troubling to Saudi Arabians is the appearance of cooperation between the US and the new Shi‘i power brokers in Iraq. Nasir al-‘Umar launched a simultaneous direct assault on Iraqi Shi‘is and the US when he denounced the “strong relationship between America and the rafida” and argued that they were both the enemies of Muslims everywhere. [10] The appearance of coordination between the US and Iraqi Shi‘is to marginalize and oppress Iraqi Sunnis has produced widespread anger. During the November 2004 US-led siege of Falluja, popular websites published images of Iraqi Shi‘i national guardsmen carrying pictures of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani alongside photographs of US tanks with rosaries dangling from their barrels, providing symbolic power to arguments about the forces aligning against Sunni Muslims. Speculation that the US and Shi‘is are actively working to alter the sectarian shape of the region has been further fueled by the widespread belief that Iran, the bogeyman from the 1980s, is actively promoting the establishment of what, in December 2004, Jordanian King Abdallah II called a “crescent” of Shi‘i-dominated polities stretching from Iran to Lebanon “that will be very destabilizing for the Gulf countries and for the whole region.”

In addition to popular outrage about the sectarian transformation of Iraq, fears that Iran intends to use its influence in Iraq to ignite a wider conflict are evident within the royal family. On September 20, 2005, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Saud Al Faisal worried aloud at the Council of Foreign Relations that “if you allow…for a civil war to happen between the Shiites and the Sunnis, Iraq is finished forever. It will be dismembered. It will not only be dismembered, it will cause so many conflicts in the region that it will bring the whole region into a turmoil that will be hard to resolve.” The foreign minister seemed most upset by the prospect that the US was “handing the whole country over to Iran without reason.” In apparent disbelief, he said, “It seems out of this world that you do this. We fought a war to keep Iran from occupying Iraq after Iraq was driven out of Kuwait.” King Abdallah was more circumspect in comments he made to an American television news program, but he hardly put the issue to rest. “Iran is a friendly country,” he said. “Iran is a Muslim country. We hope that Iran will not become an obstacle to peace and security in Iraq. This is what we hope for and this is what we believe the Iraqi people hope for.” [11]

Saud Al Faisal’s comments are important not only for what they reveal about Saudi Arabia’s regional interests, but also the logic that continues to frame its approach to geostrategic challenges in the Gulf and how they will likely impact domestic sectarian tensions. While the kingdom has maintained much improved relations with Iran since 1990s, it is clear that the old political anxieties and uncertainties remain, as does the old anti-Shi‘i thinking that framed it. The reemergence of Iran as a regional threat, a sense compounded by its alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons, will likely push anti-Shi‘ism even further. A few weeks after the foreign minister made his provocative comments, Sa‘d bin Abdallah al-Barik, a contributor to the website of Salman al-‘Awda, a prominent Saudi Arabian cleric who has a history of political activism, wrote an article called “The Tribulation of the Sunnis: Is Iraq the Gateway for Iranian Shi‘ism?” The article is significant not only because it demonstrates the interest of Saudi Arabia’s powerful religious scholars in the issue, but because Salman al-‘Awda had previously set aside his personal sectarian prejudices to work with Shi‘is in King Abdallah’s national unity project. If al-‘Awda determines that working with Shi‘is is no longer politically useful, then there is little hope that the kingdom’s sectarian problems will go away any time soon.

Saudi Arabian Shi‘i political leaders are well aware of how fragile the current political moment might be. To be sure, the Iraq war has unleashed a wave of foreign pressure on Saudi rulers to reform and affirmed Saudi Arabian Shi‘is in their conviction that they, like the Shi‘a of Iraq, deserve more political opportunity. But more importantly, and perhaps tragically in the end, the war has set back the kingdom’s Shi‘a in their titanic struggle to delink themselves from the politics of sectarianism set in motion by Iran’s Islamic Revolution and to assert a sense of loyalty that transcends sectarian difference. Saudi Arabian Shi‘is are caught in a delicate balancing act, forced to constantly renew and demonstrate their loyalty to a state that has historically displayed overwhelming animus toward them, while outmaneuvering charges that they are preternaturally bonded with their co-religionists elsewhere in the region. The rise of the Shi‘is in Iraq, and more importantly the role that the Iraq war has played in re-politicizing sectarianism in the region more generally, has made their task considerably more difficult.


[1] According to government figures, there are 16.5 million Saudi Arabians living in the Kingdom. There are no reliable figures for the number of Shi‘is in Saudi Arabia. Community leaders put the number at around 1.5 million.
[2] See Madawi al-Rasheed, A History of Saudi Arabia (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), chapter 7; and essays by al-Rasheed and Gwenn Okruhlik in al-Rasheed and Robert Vitalis, eds. Counter Narratives: History, Contemporary Society and Politics in Saudi Arabia and Yemen (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2004).
[3] All interviews were conducted by the author in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain between April and August 2005.
[4] There are Shi‘a political groups that have previously rejected the legitimacy of and cooperating with the Al Saud, most notably the network widely known as Saudi Hizballah, whose local name is the Followers of the Line of the Imam [Khomeini] (Ansar Khatt al-Imam). See International Crisis Group, The Shiite Question in Saudi Arabia (Brussels/Amman, September 2005), p. 6.
[5] Reuters, October 2, 2005.
[6] Agence France Presse, September 22, 2005.
[7] In Arabic, Tabdid al-zalam wa tanbih al-niyam ila khatar al-tashayyu‘ ‘ala al-muslimin wa al-islam.
[8] Al-Madina, October 22, 2004.
[9] The original threat against al-Saffar was reported at
[10] International Crisis Group, p. 11.
[11] ABC News, October 14, 2005.

How to cite this article:

Toby Jones "The Iraq Effect in Saudi Arabia," Middle East Report 237 (Winter 2005).

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