Deep in the morass of YouTube lies a disturbing video clip recorded in late February at the cemetery of al-Baqi‘ and on surrounding streets in Medina, Saudi Arabia. An initial caption promises images of “desecration of graves.” Al-Baqi‘, located next to the mosque of the prophet Muhammad in the second holiest city of Islam, is believed to be the final resting place of four men revered by Shi‘i Muslims as imams or successors to the prophet: Hasan ibn ‘Ali, ‘Ali ibn Husayn, Muhammad ibn ‘Ali and Ja‘afar ibn Muhammad. The prophet’s wives, as well as many of his relatives and close associates, are also said to be buried here, making the ground hallowed for Sunni Muslims as well.

The clip opens with footage of young boys, Shi‘i pilgrims mostly from the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, chanting a religious invocation. “O God!” they call out. “Bless Muhammad, peace be upon him, and the House of Muhammad!” The first clause of this prayer is common to Sunni and Shi‘i Muslims, but the second — referring to the prophet’s family — encapsulates the key difference between the two main branches of Islam. The Shi‘a believe that the succession to Muhammad as religio-political leader of the Muslim community runs through his bloodline, in specific through his cousin and son-in-law ‘Ali and ‘Ali’s son Husayn. This belief is a direct challenge to the juridical authority of the Sunni clergy and, Sunni rulers often fear, political authority as well. The Wahhabi clergy and the Saudi state therefore deem the second clause of the boys’ prayer “un-Islamic,” if not downright heretical. They have the same attitude toward the Shi‘i act of veneration whereby pilgrims collect soil from around the graves of important religious figures, as the boys proceed to do in the video. In fact, the (Sunni) religious police attached to the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice usually intervene to forestall such acts, but in the clip the boys are allowed to approach a stone marker and gather dirt. Then, as a subsequent caption boasts, “After they had wreaked havoc upon the grave, the security forces removed them.”

The government version of events, advanced in openly hate-filled fashion by the video clip, asserts that the pilgrims “trampled upon” the graves of the prophet’s wives and companions. The clip claims that this alleged offense, as well as the pilgrims’ other “Zoroastrian rituals” and insults to the prophet’s companions, led security forces to disperse them and provoked local Sunni worshippers into clashing with their Shi‘i countrymen. As triumphal music plays, the videographers brag that a “lion-hearted” local youth stabbed “one of those who rejects true Islam” and joke that only the “merciful” presence of security forces protected the “grandchildren of Khosraw” from further harm. [1] These imprecations — practitioners of pre-Islamic faiths, apostates, followers of ancient Persian emperors — are old standbys of anti-Shi‘i prejudice in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. The second commenter at the YouTube site fumes: “Every apostate Zoroastrian should be expelled from Muslim lands.” Another clip even calls the Shi‘i boys “little devils.” [2]

The Shi‘i pilgrims’ version of events is quite different. They had arrived in Medina on February 20 to mark the anniversary of the death of Muhammad, which in 2009 fell on February 24. On the same day, Shi‘is commemorate the passing of Hasan, the second imam. Pilgrims said that the religious police videotaped the women among them, affronting their piety and modesty. When a group of men, some of them husbands of the taped women, asked the police to destroy or hand over the tapes, clashes broke out. Armed policemen confronted hundreds of protesters chanting slogans in reverence of Husayn. In the following days, the religious police arrested and injured dozens. According to Shi‘i reports, many pilgrims gathered on the evening of February 23 to commemorate the death of Muhammad but were not let into the cemetery. They moved to the square between the cemetery and the mosque of the prophet. There, they say, they were attacked by Sunnis exiting the mosque and by the religious police.

Comments made after the Medina clashes by Prince Nayif, the interior minister who was named deputy crown prince in March, are highly suggestive about whose version of events is closer to the truth: “Citizens have both rights and duties; their activities should not contradict the doctrine followed by the umma. This is the doctrine of Sunnis and our righteous forefathers. There are citizens who follow other schools of thought and the intelligent among them must respect this doctrine.” [3] In other words, the Shi‘i citizens of Saudi Arabia should not express their religious beliefs in public out of deference to Sunni sensibilities, which the prince casually equates to those of the world Muslim community as a whole. Throughout the kingdom’s history, indeed, the Shi‘a, who make up 10 percent of the total population, have been subject to discrimination at the hands of the state. The Medina disturbances are part of a pattern of rising Shi‘i militancy in response to that discrimination around the country, and particularly in the oil-rich Eastern Province, where Shi‘a form a slight majority. Parts of the Saudi regime, at least, seem to have an interest in escalating the confrontation.

State Escalation

It is no accident that sparks would fly between the Shi‘a and the state at al-Baqi‘. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, when the House of Sa‘ud first conquered Medina, the Wahhabi clergy who backed the Saudis ordered the destruction of the domes over the graves of the Shi‘i imams. In Wahhabi doctrine, the construction of tombs and mausoleums is forbidden as something that encourages “saint worship.” [4] In Shi‘i Islam, however, visitation of shrines is a pillar of popular religiosity, and the shrines in cities such as Mashhad, Najaf and Karbala’ draw millions of pilgrims every year. Shi‘i activists have long cited the razing of the tombs in their denunciations of the Saudi state and the Wahhabi stance vis-à-vis other theological schools and sects. Members of a Shi‘i opposition party founded a publishing house, the al-Baqi‘ Foundation for the Revival of Heritage, which released a book on the subject. [5]

There have been reports that security forces and Sunni rioters also targeted the Shi‘i community of Medina itself (known as the Nakhawila) as a consequence of the confrontations at the cemetery. The community’s major news website reported that the religious police, security forces and the Sunni attackers followed pilgrims back to their neighborhood of al-‘Azziyyat. There, they continued beating the pilgrims and others and also assaulted people with knives. [6] The Nakhawila are not permitted to practice Shi‘i rituals in the city and have to gather on farms or in private halls that are used as mosques. Unlike the Shi‘a of the Eastern Province, they are a small minority where they live, and so they are traditionally rather hesitant to raise the demand for reform and religious freedom. These incidents are thus something of a newly aggressive move on the part of the state.

The reports of state repression prompted a wave of demonstrations abroad. In London, Shi‘a from several countries protested outside the Saudi embassy. The Kuwaiti cleric Yasir al-Habib reportedly called for the establishment of “Greater Bahrain,” a reference to the mythical homeland of Gulf Shi‘a that extends from Bahrain over the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia toward Kuwait and even Basra in southern Iraq. [7] But the most militant protests occurred in the Eastern Province.

“Intifadat 1430”

There, along the coast of the Gulf, a previously unknown group calling itself the Force of Youth summoned Shi‘a into the streets in solidarity with the Shi‘a arrested and injured in Medina on February 21. Days later, the first demonstrations occurred in the town of al-Qatif as well as in the nearby villages of Safwa and al-‘Awwamiyya. The fact of the demonstrations was extraordinary in itself, since such public displays of dissent are illegal in Saudi Arabia, and are usually suppressed by the state even when they concern regional issues. In late December 2008, security forces fired rubber bullets into a crowd of Shi‘a protesting the Israeli bombardment of Gaza and arrested more than a dozen in the Eastern Province. [8] Similar gatherings had occurred in the past, for example, to voice support for Hizballah in its war with Israel in 2006. What was new in February was that the demonstrations concerned a national issue — the treatment of Shi‘a in Medina — and explicitly demanded an end to discrimination against the Shi‘a in Saudi Arabia as a whole.

After the clashes in Medina, several new organizations emerged. On February 24, a group called the Free Men of al-Qatif released a statement harshly condemning the religious police and sardonically shortening its name. “Dear Commission of Vice: You have dishonored us and dared to defile the purest of places. What are we to do?” [9] They went on to call for large demonstrations in al-Qatif and al-Hasa. Intriguingly, the Free Men of al-Qatif, who are mainstream “Twelver” Shi‘is, speak in terms inclusive of Shi‘i groups living in other parts of the country, including the Nakhawila and the Isma‘ilis of Najran. In mid-March, they addressed another statement “to our fighting people in the Arabian Peninsula in al-Qatif, al-Hasa, Najran and Medina.” [10] A collection of anonymous religious scholars from al-Qatif and al-Hasa also published a letter expressing their “great anger and revulsion” at the events in Medina and blaming the religious police and “hateful takfiri groups” for what happened. [11]

The Medina clashes also occasioned a response from more radical Shi‘i groups that have not been heard from in some time. Hizballah al-Hijaz, an Iranian-sponsored opposition movement blamed for several attacks inside and outside Saudi Arabia in the late 1980s and 1990s, most importantly the Khobar Towers bombings in 1996, issued a rare statement of condemnation. [12] Hizballah al-Hijaz has been the only Shi‘i organization to oppose any engagement with the Saudi regime and to advocate armed struggle instead. Most members and sympathizers of Hizballah al-Hijaz were arrested in 1996, often to face torture, and they assumed a low profile thereafter. Among Shi‘i activists, however, it is well known that certain clerics and laymen belong to groups called “the Line of the Imam” or “the Party,” which are basically cover names for Hizballah al-Hijaz. During public festivities in al-Qatif, people associated with the movement organize speeches and stage passion plays about the martyrdom of Husayn.

In a sign of the rising militancy, commentators and activists have striven to link the confrontation at the al-Baqi‘ burial ground with the intifada of 1979-1980, when groups of Shi‘a inspired by the revolution in Iran rose up in a campaign of mass civil disobedience that was brutally put down by the National Guard. [13] Some have dubbed the Medina events intifadat al-Baqi‘. The website of Hizballah al-Hijaz played on words in Arabic, tying intifadat Muharram 1400 (the date of the earlier uprising on the Islamic calendar) to intifadat al-Haram al-Nabawi wal-Baqi‘ 1430 (the Islamic date of the clashes near the mosque of the prophet in Medina).

The Threat of Secession

But the greatest notoriety in the wake of the protests has accrued to Nimr al-Nimr, a cleric from al-‘Awwamiyya, an almost entirely Shi‘i and poor village surrounded by palm trees outside of al-Qatif. The village is not representative of the Shi‘i population as a whole; it is famous, in fact, among Shi‘a from elsewhere as a place where sentiment against the Saudi state is very strong and radical political strands are very popular. Many members of the Shi‘i opposition movements come from this village and during the 1979 uprising, some activists claim, it was called the Islamic Republic of al-‘Awwamiyya. [14] Nimr al-Nimr hails from an esteemed family of clerics and political leaders. His grandfather, Sheikh Muhammad bin Nasir al-Nimr, was the leader of a popular revolt against the House of Sa‘ud in 1929-1930, an event that figures heavily in the literature of the Islamic Revolution Organization in the Arabian Peninsula, the (long since disbanded) parent organization of most political Shi‘ism in Saudi Arabia today. [15] The leader of the Organization, Hasan al-Saffar, wrote in one of its booklets that coming generations should study the example of Muhammad al-Nimr, “a shining star in the sky of the mujahidin,” to prepare themselves for the path of revolution. [16] This background adds to Nimr al-Nimr’s credibility as an anti-government figure in the eyes of many. A report by the International Crisis Group classifies him as a “rejectionist,” who deeply distrusts the regime and even opposed the municipal council elections in 2005. [17]

In 2007, Nimr al-Nimr, who studied in Sayyida Zaynab in Damascus, among other places, joined a delegation from al-‘Awwamiyya to the vice governor of the Eastern Province, Muhammad bin Jiluwi. The delegates had prepared a list of demands, but al-Nimr had brought his own. He declared forthrightly that there can be no good relations between the government and the Shi‘a as long as the state turns a blind eye to sectarian incitement. Most importantly, he demanded that the Shi‘a, who have lived on top of the country’s oil for hundreds of years, should get a fairer portion of the kingdom’s oil income. These demands were published online and many Shi‘a were happy that someone had addressed the issue of the distribution of oil wealth. [18] For comments like these, al-Nimr has been jailed several times. He has been quickly let go on each occasion, some think because of his popularity in al-‘Awwamiyya.

After the clashes in Medina, hundreds of demonstrators met Nimr al-Nimr in the village streets. The security forces and the religious police broke up the protests and arrested several people, mostly young boys. Then al-Nimr delivered what in Shi‘i circles has come to be known as the “dignity speech,” which spread rapidly via the Internet. In a Friday sermon in his small mosque, he blasted the sectarian policies of the regime and, crucially, raised the possibility of seeking independence from Saudi Arabia: “Our dignity has been pawned away, and if it is not…restored, we will call for secession. Our dignity is more precious than the unity of this land.” [19] The speech predictably aroused the ire of the state, and al-Nimr went into hiding. Young men from al-‘Awwamiyya started demonstrating in front of his house in support of his freedom from state intimidation. The Free Men of al-Qatif threatened violent retaliation if al-Nimr is arrested or assassinated, and a “Network for the Defense of His Eminence Sheikh al-Nimr” has created a website to track his case. [20] Although the prisoners from Medina were released after a meeting between a Shi‘i delegation and King ‘Abdallah, the security forces again arrested dozens of protesters in al-‘Awwamiyya and other villages. They set up checkpoints around al-‘Awwamiyya and cut off the village’s electricity multiple times. At night, residents climbed atop their homes to call loudly for prayer in support of al-Nimr. This, too, is reminiscent of the intifada in 1979, when prayers were shouted from rooftops in order to boost the morale of the community.

Fence Menders in the Lurch

Sheikh al-Nimr’s speech put the established Shi‘i interlocutors with the regime in a very difficult position. Many of these men, who have worked for decades to mend fences with the regime after the uprising of 1979-1980, were shocked. Even former opposition activists condemned his speech. Ja‘afar al-Shayib, a former leading member of the Islamic Revolution Organization, stated that al-Nimr did not express the view of the majority of the Shi‘a in the Eastern Province. After the intifada in 1979 the likes of al-Shayib went into exile, where they published magazines, lobbied against the royal family and tried to strengthen the collective identity of the Shi‘a in the Eastern Province. After negotiating a general amnesty, a release of all Shi‘i political prisoners and the lifting of a travel ban on hundreds of activists, they returned to Saudi Arabia in 1993, most believing that they could achieve more by negotiating with the state than through open opposition. The former opposition activists even became advocates of a new Saudi Arabian nationalism, sending a petition entitled “Partners in One Nation” to the capital in 2003 and participating in King ‘Abdallah’s “National Dialogue.” They won most of the seats in majority-Shi‘i areas in the municipal council elections in 2005.

Both the Saudi state and foreign observers have long seen Hasan al-Saffar, spiritual leader of the old Islamic Revolution Organization and a key figure in its former activists’ rapprochement with the regime, as the main representative of the Shi‘i community in the Eastern Province. But Al-Saffar’s failure to achieve an end to sectarian discrimination is undermining his traditional position. The reshuffles of the cabinet and Council of Senior Ulama announced days before the clashes in Medina did not take Shi‘i grievances into account. Although the Council now includes representatives of all four Sunni schools of jurisprudence (as opposed to just the Hanbali school to which Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab belonged), not a single Shi‘i cleric has a seat.

In recent months, another cadre of former Islamic Revolution Organization members has begun to criticize Hasan al-Saffar directly. The most vocal critic is Hamza al-Hasan, who was once a main ideologue of al-Saffar’s movement. In those days, he published under various pseudonyms and wrote the only extensive history of the Shi‘a in Saudi Arabia. [21] Although he was one of the chief negotiators with the government in 1993, he did not like the outcome and so remained in London to continue opposition activities. He and several others, including Fu’ad Ibrahim, published several magazines and in the autumn of 2008 launched a website critical of both the regime and the “new Shi‘i notables,” as they rather derisively call al-Saffar and his colleagues. In the aftermath of the Medina events, al-Hasan became the spokesperson abroad for a new opposition movement named Khalas (Deliverance). This movement incorporates several elements of the Saudi Arabian Shi‘i population who feel disenfranchised by developments.

Frustration with both the regime and al-Saffar is indeed widespread. In the autumn of 2008, a former member of the clerical wing of al-Saffar’s organization privately made statements similar to those of Nimr al-Nimr: “We do not want secession if there are other ways to achieve our rights within the Saudi framework. But the last decades have shown us that this is simply not possible. Therefore, I am prepared to work for secession if this gives us our freedom.” [22] Even close aides of al-Saffar said such things immediately before the invasion of Iraq in 2003. At the time, Muhammad Mahfouz, a popular cleric and writer, told a reporter: “If secession means that we’d get our rights, of course we’d want it.” [23]

Taking Sides

Saudi officials and other commentators have claimed that the events in Medina and the Eastern Province were staged and planned by Shi‘i radicals and “foreign parties.” [24] There is a certain logic to these accusations: In the early years after the Iranian revolution, there were not infrequent clashes between police and Shi‘i pilgrims to Mecca who came mainly from outside Saudi Arabia. In July 1987, over 400 pilgrims were killed and several thousand injured, most of them Iranians. [25] Iran worked thereafter at creating Hizballah al-Hijaz. Yet the events of February differ from earlier confrontations with pilgrims because the protesters came mostly from within the kingdom. It is simplistic to view Shi‘i-Sunni relations in Saudi Arabia as a mirror of Iranian-Saudi relations. With the exception of Hizballah al-Hijaz, none of the Shi‘i political movements is endorsed by the Iranian regime.

The quick spread of information and protest from Medina to the Eastern Province is instructive as regards both the indigenous nature of the unrest and its relation to discontent with the traditional communal leadership. The groups that are dissatisfied with Hasan al-Saffar’s approach have certainly waited for such an opportunity. As al-Hasan, who has backed secession for some time, commented, “Now, finally, everyone has to take sides. Are they with the government or are they in opposition to the government?” [26] It cannot escape the attention of al-Saffar’s Shi‘i critics that it was mainly boys and young men who were arrested and injured in Medina and the Eastern Province. They may reasonably conclude that the future is theirs.

Whether the protests were staged or not, as long as the Saudi state discriminates against its Shi‘i citizens, the potential for conflict will remain. The forces that want to work with the government, such as al-Saffar, are losing support because they cannot deliver real political gains to their constituency. The way is therefore open to groups that want to adopt a more confrontational stance, such as Hizballah al-Hijaz. It is unlikely, however, that these groups truly believe in the possibility of secession in the near future. Likewise, the daydreams of some in Washington of a Shi‘i state in the Eastern Province, which may have found their way onto a few official drawing boards after the attacks of September 11, 2001, will not return after the troubling US experience in Iraq. Neither is Iran in any position to help the Shi‘a to build a state, not if Tehran wishes for a US-Iranian rapprochement. On the other hand, the Shi‘a are convinced that they will be able to achieve a decent settlement within the Saudi framework only if pressure on the Saudi government increases.

At the same time, of course, proclamations like the “dignity speech” of al-Nimr nurture the deep suspicions held by many Sunni Saudi Arabians that the Shi‘a are little but an Iranian fifth column. After the Medina events, anti-Shi‘i commentators claimed on the Internet: “Today they besiege the religious police; tomorrow they will encircle the Eastern Province along with the Shi‘a of Bahrain and with Iranian backing.” Other commentators suggested that the Shi‘a should be hurled into the Red Sea or deported to the Iranian seminary city of Qom. [27] And the references to “Zoroastrians” and “apostates” in the YouTube video clip speak for themselves. Although it sometimes claims otherwise, the Saudi regime does little to curb the excesses of the religious police or to silence the anti-Shi‘i fulminations issued as fatwas by the Wahhabi clergy. In fact, many believe that the state encourages the sectarianism. As a member of a Shi‘i notable family who is pro-government says, “Second-rank officials are using the recent events to increase tensions and repress the Shi‘a. They use what al-Nimr has said to prove to the first-rank leaders that the Shi‘a are disloyal.” [28]

Unless the regime is prepared to offer the Shi‘a a grand bargain that would include such gestures as appointment of Shi‘i ministers and ambassadors — gestures, that is, that would indicate actual equality of citizenship across sectarian lines – -extremists on both sides of the struggle may gain in strength.


[1] The clip can be viewed at [Arabic] [2] The second clip can be viewed at [Arabic] [3] Arab News, March 15, 2009.
[4] Madawi al-Rasheed, A History of Saudi Arabia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 21.
[5] Yusuf al-Hajiri, al-Baqi‘: Qissat tadmir Al Sa‘ud lil-athar al-islamiyya fil-Hijaz (Beirut: Mu’assasat al-Baqi‘ li-Ihya’ al-Turath, 1990).
[6] See the reports of, February 23 and 24, 2009 at this link. [Arabic] [7] On the narrative of “Greater Bahrain,” see Laurence Louer, Transnational Shiite Politics: Religious and Political Networks in the Gulf (London: Hurst, 2008), pp. 23-30.
[8], December 26, 2008, available at [Arabic] [9] The statement is posted at [Arabic] [10] The statement is posted at [Arabic] [11] This letter is posted online. [Arabic] [12] The statement is posted online. [Arabic] [13] See Toby Jones, “Rebellion on the Saudi Periphery: Modernity, Marginalization and the Shi‘a Uprising of 1979,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 38/2 (May 2006).
[14] Interview with a Shi‘i from al-‘Awwamiyya, August 2008.
[15] See Guido Steinberg, “The Shiites in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, 1913-1953,” in Rainer Brunner and Werner Ende, eds., The Twelver Shia in Modern Times: Religious Culture and Political History (Leiden: Brill, 2001), p. 250.
[16] See al-Saffar’s introduction to Muhammad al-‘Awami, ed., Tha’ir min ajl al-din: Malamih min hay’at al-‘allama al-mujahid al-Shaykh Muhammad bin Nasir al-Nimr (London: Dar al-Jazira lil-Nashr, 1987), p. 11.
[17] International Crisis Group, The Shiite Question in Saudi Arabia (Riyadh/Amman/Brussels, September 2005), p. 7.
[18] The demands can be viewed at [Arabic] [19] Quoted by the Associated Press, April 1, 2009.
[20] The site is accessible at
[21] Hamza al-Hasan, al-Shi‘a fil-Mamlaka al-‘Arabiyya al-Sa‘udiyya (Beirut: Mu’assasat al-Baqi‘ li-Ihya’ al-Turath, 1993).
[22] Interview with a Shi‘i activist, Saudi Arabia, November 2008.
[23] Wall Street Journal, February 3, 2003.
[24] Financial Times, March 25, 2009.
[25] Christin Marschall, Iran’s Persian Gulf Policy: From Khomeini to Khatami (London: Routledge, 2003), p. 52.
[26] Interview with Hamza al-Hasan, London, April 2009.
[27] Economist, February 26, 2009.
[28] Telephone interview, April 2009.

How to cite this article:

Toby Matthiesen "The Shi‘a of Saudi Arabia at a Crossroads," Middle East Report Online, May 06, 2009.

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