Enmity for the Shi‘a in Saudi Arabia, never entirely absent, has become increasingly strident in 2006 and early 2007. The empowerment of the Iraqi Shi‘a and the bloody escalation of Sunni-Shi‘i violence in Iraq have intensified sectarian animosity around the Middle East, but in Saudi Arabia the hostility runs particularly deep. Recent anti-Shi‘i rhetoric recalls the 1980s, the most vituperative period of sectarian rancor, when the country’s leaders vilified Shi‘ism as part of a domestic and regional political program to counter the revolutionary message of Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. While Saudi Arabia is a bellwether for the future of sectarianism across the region, for now it is the kingdom’s two million Shi‘a, most of whom live in the oil-rich Eastern Province, who are in the direct line of fire. The country’s rulers have not only proven unwilling to restrain the latest surge of fulmination, but are in fact fanning the flames of acrimony.

It is not just the declining fortunes of Iraq’s Sunni Arab community that have generated unease among their co-religionists in Saudi Arabia. The resurgence of Iran, the resilience of Lebanese Hizballah in its war with Israel in 2006 and the perception of shifts in the regional balance of power have all helped to unleash the forces of sectarian ferment.

From Reform to Recrimination

Almost four years ago, Saudi Arabia’s leaders proclaimed their readiness to shepherd the country along the path of political reform. The regime’s rhetorical commitment to change was mostly the result of internal pressure generated by a national reform lobby that first emerged in early 2003. The reform lobby included a mix of Sunnis and Shi‘is from around the country who petitioned then Crown Prince ‘Abdallah to overhaul the country’s institutions and better integrate Saudi Arabian citizens into the governing structure. Riding the momentum generated by the reform lobby, that spring some 450 Shi‘is signed a separate petition asking ‘Abdallah to help them secure relief from the various social and institutional pressures that had rendered them an embattled community for much of the twentieth century. [1]

By late 2003 it was already clear that political reform in Saudi Arabia would be largely cosmetic, that the pace of change would be glacially slow and that the state would meet future calls for liberalization with violence. [2] But the kingdom’s rulers did move more determinedly to address other political concerns, especially after the Saudi Arabian branch of al-Qaeda carried out a series of bombings that threatened to destabilize the country. Foremost among these was ‘Abdallah’s project to promote more tolerance for religious diversity and rein in the forces of politico-religious extremism in the kingdom. In the summer of 2003,
‘Abdallah threw his considerable weight behind the creation of a national dialogue that brought leading religious figures together, including a highly publicized meeting attended by the kingdom’s preeminent Shi‘i scholar Hasan al-Saffar, as well as a group of Sunni clerics who had previously expressed their loathing for the Shi‘i minority. In another significant shift, the government ended its ban on the open observance of ‘Ashura—the commemoration of the death of Imam Hussein—in the Eastern Province. Saudi Arabian Shi‘is still face important limits in observing the holiest of their holidays. Public processions are restricted to exclusively Shi‘i communities. For example, Shi‘is residing in the mixed city of Dammam remain forbidden from observing ‘Ashura. Furthermore, public ceremonies can only be held on the Tenth of Muharram, the precise anniversary of Hussein’s passing, and not in the few preceding days, as many Shi‘a do elsewhere.

It is impossible to measure the actual scope of rapprochement between the kingdom’s sects. In spite of the national dialogue, anti-Shi‘ism remained a powerful sentiment for many Sunnis across the country. For their part, Shi‘is in the Eastern Province remained dubious of the motives of senior Sunni clerics at the national dialogue, with at least one prominent activist suggesting that they were practicing taqiyya (in Arabic, dissimulation—the hiding of true beliefs from rulers, long practiced by the Shi‘a) in order to avoid political trouble with the royal family. Yet from 2003 until 2005, there was little tolerance or space for public declarations of sectarian hatred. Today the myth of rapprochement has been fully demolished, and Saudi Arabia’s Shi‘a are again the targets of rampant recriminations and vitriol.

Mixed Signals

The Iraq debacle and the rise of Iran as a regional power are largely to blame for the current poisoning of relations between Saudi Arabia’s Sunni and Shi‘i communities—but the Saudi regime has made matters worse. Unlike in the 1980s, when Saudi Arabia met the ideological threat posed by Khomeini head on, the kingdom’s rulers have not consistently manipulated sectarian hostility or consistently adopted a confrontational posture toward Iran, despite their clear desire to check or roll back Iranian influence. on January 25, 2007, Saudi Arabia sent Bandar bin Sultan, the former ambassador to the United States, to Iran for discussions on the crisis in Lebanon and the kingdom even held talks with Hizballah leaders it had invited for the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. Iran’s national security adviser, Ali Larijani, also visited King ‘Abdallah twice in January-February. [3] Still, sectarian tensions clearly lurk beneath the surface. ‘Abdallah’s own public message contains inconsistencies. In an interview with the Kuwaiti newspaper al-Siyasa, the king suggested that Shi‘i-Sunni tensions were “not a matter of danger” while simultaneously upbraiding Iran for allegedly engaging in efforts to proselytize in predominantly Sunni countries. [4] ‘Abdallah’s comments suggest that, in spite of his efforts to deflect sectarian tensions and even work around them, managing and strategically deploying anti-Shi‘ism is nevertheless an important part of his government’s political calculus.

On the domestic front, the government has sent mixed signals about how it will treat the Shi‘i minority in the future. Crown Prince Sultan visited the predominantly Shi‘i communities in late January 2007 and supported the opening of a local cultural center in a gesture intended to calm escalating anxieties. But there are also worrisome signs that the regime is turning its back on the Shi‘a, and that some regime elements are even turning against them.

The first signs of an official crackdown on the Shi‘a appeared in early August 2006. Shi‘a in towns across the Eastern Province, in particular Qatif and Safwa, had taken to the streets in support of Hizballah during its war with Israel. Much like demonstrators across the Middle East, the marchers shouted anti-Israel slogans and paraded with the distinctive yellow banners and flags of Hizballah, contravening the regime’s ban on all forms of political assembly. Although only several hundred participated in the most vocal displays, the regime was clearly unnerved by the open exhibition of political sentiment, particularly since King ‘Abdallah had it made clear that he considered Hizballah’s actions to be unnecessarily provocative. The authorities forcibly broke up the demonstrations and arrested the leaders. [5]

Security forces continued to monitor Shi‘i communities closely throughout the fall. In mid-October, just days before the government hosted Iraqi Sunni and Shi‘i religious leaders in Mecca in order to promote sectarian stability there, authorities again arrested Shi‘is from Qatif and the surrounding area, reportedly for supporting Hizballah. The pretexts for the arrests ranged from raising Hizballah banners during a Ramadan celebration to chanting pro-Hizballah slogans to possessing pictures of Hizballah’s political leader, Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah. [6] In addition to the detentions, the government also expanded the operations of its religious police in Shi‘i areas. The religious police pressured the handful of weekly cultural salons to close down, and forced the cancellation of a woman’s theater performance in Qatif in October. [7] The trend continued when, shortly after the new year, the Interior Ministry ordered the shuttering of 12 weekly seminars in al-Hasa. [8]

At the end of Ramadan, local authorities dissolved a council of Shi‘i ‘ulama’ from Qatif and al-Hasa organized to determine when the month of fasting for local Shi‘a should end. [9] Local activists reported that authorities also cracked down on Sunni-Shi‘i cultural collaboration during Ramadan, preventing Sunnis from participating in a seminar and book exhibit at a Shi‘i community center (husseiniyya) in the town of Sayhat. [10] During the pilgrimage in late December, at least two busloads of Shi‘i pilgrims from Qatif and al-Hasa were stopped en route to Mecca by authorities and reportedly subjected to sectarian harassment. In spite of the intensification of government harassment, many salons and cultural activities continued uninterrupted, although the meddling by local authorities heightened perceptions that the state was poised to initiate a wider crackdown. The visit by the crown prince aimed to quell such fears. But Saudi Arabian Shi‘is remain unconvinced, particularly since the government has done little to quiet the hostile sectarian discourse coming from popular Sunni clerics around the kingdom.

Shrill Declarations

Prominent Sunni religious figures have long used anti-Shi‘i pronouncements to great effect. War between Hizballah and Israel in 2006 momentarily disrupted the standard sectarian refrain, as erstwhile critics of Shi‘ism announced their adoration for Hizballah’s willingness to take on what remains for most Saudi Arabians the region’s paramount menace. Salman al-‘Awda, a leading member of al-Sahwa al-Islamiyya (the Islamic Awakening, a network of salafi religious figures that rose to prominence in the 1990s for their public criticisms of the royal family), suggested in the early fall that of all Shi‘i organizations, Hizballah was closest to being Sunni. other Sunni religious figures stumbled over themselves denying (falsely) that they had ever deemed the Shi‘a to be unbelievers (takfir). But as violence between Shi‘a and Sunnis in Iraq worsened, the glow of comity generated by Hizballah faded.

In early December 2006, a group of 38 Sunni religious scholars from Saudi Arabia joined prominent Sunni Iraqis, including ‘Adnan al-Dulaymi of the Iraqi Accord Front, Harith al-Dhari of the Association of Muslim Scholars and (via taped message) the Islamic Army of Iraq, in Istanbul and issued a shrill declaration that supported the anti-occupation and anti-Shi‘i jihad in Iraq, stopping just short of calling for regional war against Shi‘ism and genocide against the Shi‘a. [11] Among the Saudi Arabian signatories were Safar al-Hawali and Nasir al-‘Umar, two popular clerics who have routinely made anti-Shi‘ism a pillar of their religio-political thinking. [12]

On December 17, one week after the publication of the Istanbul declaration, another of the signatories, ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Barrak, issued a fatwa declaring all Shi‘is to be guilty of takfir, enemies of the Sunnis and a greater threat to Muslims than Jews. He denigrated Sunni proponents of rapprochement between the two major sects, including participants in Saudi Arabia’s national dialogue who promote tolerance for “the other,” as ignorant. He boldly suggested the two sects could only reconcile if the Shi‘a renounced their wayward beliefs and rejoined the Sunni fold. [13]

Just over a month later, ‘Abdallah bin Jibrin, author of several anti-Shi‘i fatwas in the 1990s, issued an angry statement supporting the “necessity” of a Sunni victory in Iraq. [14] Outraged, bin Jibrin outlined the various ways, including torture and indiscriminate murder, in which Shi‘is were complicit with the US occupation in ethnic cleansing against the Sunnis. Although justified in expressing alarm over the violence carried out by Shi‘i militias against Sunnis in Iraq, bin Jibrin’s fatwa was more a declaration of war than a lamentation of unjust violence. He directed his own dangerous invective against Shi‘ism, inviting an escalation of hostilities between Sunnis and Shi‘is, and heaped scorn upon Shi‘i belief and ritual, calling Shi‘is intellectually weak and scolding them for their demonstrations of sorrow and self-flagellation during ‘Ashura.

Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti issued a follow-up statement countering the Istanbul declaration in early December, calling for unity in Iraq and renouncing sectarianism. But there have been no official statements distancing the kingdom from the vicious anti-Shi‘i fatwas that have proliferated. For their part, Saudi Arabia’s political leaders remained conspicuously silent on the activity of the kingdom’s religious scholars. None of the Saudi Arabian signatories of the Istanbul declaration have been held accountable in any serious way. Worse, there is episodic evidence that some Sunnis in the Eastern Province are eager to apply the hateful advice offered up by radical religious figures. In mid-January, several dozen Sunnis, reportedly with support from the Saudi religious police, violently interrupted the exhibition of an Iranian documentary film in Dammam.

It would be inaccurate to suggest that Saudi political leaders seek an escalation of the sectarian violence that has devastated Iraq. Although the kingdom’s rulers fear Iran’s political ascendancy in the region, as by implication Iranian hegemony means greater strength for Saudi Arabian Shi‘a, they also fear any instability that would be wrought by an expansion of conflict outside of Iraq’s borders. But nevertheless, the ruling family is attempting to ride the sectarian tiger by pretending, and perhaps believing, that it is capable of managing the ways sectarianism gets used politically in the region and at home. This is a dangerous game and, if it proceeds apace, Saudi Arabia’s worst nightmare could come true.


[1] See Toby Jones, “Seeking a Social Contract in Saudi Arabia,” Middle East Report 228 (Fall 2003), p. 44.
[2] Toby Jones, “Violence and the Illusion of Reform in Saudi Arabia,” Middle East Report Online, November 13, 2003.
[3] F. Gregory Gause III, “Saudi Arabia: Iraq, Iran, the Regional Power Balance and the Sectarian Question,” Strategic Insights (February 2007).
[4] Al-Siyasa (Kuwait), January 27, 2007.
[5] Al-Jazeera.net, August 7, 2006.
[6] Four of those arrested in October were released within a week of their detention. Rasid.net, october 22, 2006.
[7] Rasid.net, October 25, 2006.
[8] Sawt al-Khudud, January 12, 2007.
[9] Rasid.net, November 23, 2006.
[10] Rasid.net, October 22, 2006.
[11] The statement can be found at http://www.muslim.net, the website of Nasir al-‘Umar. See al-Quds al-‘Arabi, December 15, 2006, for additional commentary.
[12] See Toby Jones, “The Iraq Effect in Saudi Arabia,” Middle East Report 237 (Winter 2005), p. 24.
[13] The fatwa can be viewed online at: http://albarrak.islamlight.net/index. php?option=com_ftawa&task=view&id=18080&Itemid=7.
[14] This statement can be found at http://www.ibn-jebreen.com.

How to cite this article:

Toby Jones "Saudi Arabia’s Not So New Anti-Shi`ism," Middle East Report 242 (Spring 2007).

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