Saudi Arabia’s Shiites: Caught in the Middle


Photo/Flickr: samclubs
This is a guest note by Salman Al-Rashid, a Master’s student at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service and a former intern with the New America Foundation’s Middle East Task Force.
Against the backdrop of this watershed moment in Arab history, a Cold War between Saudi Arabia and Iran has emerged. Mistrust and tension between the two states, one predominantly Sunni Muslim and the other predominant Shia, is nothing new. Iran’s support for Hezbollah curtailed Saudi Arabia’s influence as an arbiter of affairs in the Levante, its support of the Houthi rebellion in Northern Yemen in 2009 unnerved the kingdom’s leaders, and its perceived closeness with Iraq and several Gulf states has the Saudis fearing Shiite encirclement. These, among other issues, color the historic rivalry.
The Arab Spring has provided yet another arena for conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The persistence of protests across the region has forced the rivals to make critical decisions based on fears about the other’s intentions. As a result, the rivalry has dramatically increased tensions across the region’s sectarian politics.
While the Arab Spring holds the promise of socioeconomic improvement and political empowerment for Arabs across the region, it may not reach Saudi Arabian Shiites. King Abdullah has sought to improve the lot of Saudi Shiites and integrate them into society. The new regional Cold War, however, has raised the specter of Iranian intrigue, which could reinvigorate Sunni Saudi prejudices against Shiism and Shiites. This might compel Saudi leadership, ever anxious about Iranian machinations, to abandon King Abdullah’s conciliatory posture toward this population after his death.
To begin addressing Shiite grievances, in 2003 then crown prince Abdullah formed the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue, which is dedicated to “tackling social, cultural, political, economic and educational problems using dialogue channels.” Though the Center’s mission statement does not mention “sectarian,” the initiative brings together Saudis of different classes, genders, and sects and ultimately seeks to address socioeconomic, gender-based, and sectarian grievances. According to the International Crisis Group, in one dialogue meeting “Sunnis, Shiites, Sufis, and Ismailis discussed rolling back militancy and promoting Islamic pluralism.”
The Dialogue is one aspect of Abdullah’s liberal agenda that includes social, economic, and political reforms. However, a member of the Saudi Majlis ash-Shura, a consultative political body, suggested that many Saudis believe Abdullah’s reform program has “gone too far.” Since prejudice against Shiites has historically run deep in Saudi society, might Saudis reject the continuation of Sunni-Shiite dialogue after the king’s death and in an era of trumped up Saudi-Iranian and Sunni-Shia tensions?
The kingdom’s education system provides helpful clues. Prior to Abdullah, textbooks contained material that discussed Shiites in a negative manner. The Guardian’s Christopher Wilcke maintains that Saudi schoolbooks professed that Shiites are non-Muslim infidels. A 2006 Freedom House report on Saudi education confirms Wilcke’s findings. Alluding to Shiites and other Sunni sects, textbooks condemned those who interpret the Qur’an differently as “polytheists.” Though these reports are quite illuminating, it’s important to keep in mind that textbooks did not directly attack Shiites and that these conclusions are subject to debate.
Abdullah’s National Dialogue has emphasized the need to rid the Saudi curriculum of such intolerant material. Participants at the third annual National Dialogue meeting discussed efforts to “cultivate the spirit of tolerance and moderation” among members of the younger generation through curriculum reform. In terms of concrete action, King Abdullah reshuffled the education ministry’s leadership in 2009 in order to accelerate key changes to the standard school curriculum, such as portraying Islam as a more accommodating religion in textbooks.
While many Saudis may have discarded some of the sectarian prejudices to which they were exposed in older textbooks, the kingdom’s less-tolerant clerics can revitalize negative characterizations of Shiites in the wake of the intensified Saudi-Iran rivalry. The House of Saud has a contract with the conservative clerical establishment; as long as the al-Sauds uphold a rigid version of Shariah, clerics consider them legitimate custodians of the two holy mosques. In many ways, Saudi leadership is beholden to these clerics, many of whom sponsor an exclusivist social contract that embraces Sunnis and rejects Shiites.
The National Dialogue embodies Abdullah’s courage in the face of some members of the religious establishment. Key questions remain. Is the dialogue’s survival intimately linked to Abdullah himself? Do other senior princes agree with this aspect of his reform project? Is promoting a spirit of religious tolerance becoming institutionalized in general in Saudi society?
Abdullah’s successor may shelve the dialogue not because of his own personal views but because of internal pressure to confront the sectarian threat that Iran poses; Saudi Arabia’s Shiites will inevitably suffer if such an attitude grips Riyadh.
The emerging Cold War with Iran will only strengthen the influence of Saudi’s less tolerant clerics and perhaps reinforce anti-Shiite prejudices; in turn, the manipulation of the debate on Shiites might pressure Saudi leaders to neglect the Shiite question. The kingdom’s religious leaders can mine a long historical narrative of (alleged) Iranian intrigue to influence Saudi rulers. In the 1980s Ayatollah Khomeini sent Shiites to protest at the Hajj in Mecca in an attempt to undermine the House of Saud’s Islamic credentials. And many now believe Iran is fueling Shiite agitations in Bahrain.
Many Saudi rulers suspected that Iranian meddling led to unrest in the tiny island-kingdom, and the Saudis obliged when Bahrain appealed to the GCC for help controlling protest. This paranoid, sectarian argument tantalizes American leaders. After his meeting with senior Saudi officials in April, Defense Secretary Robert Gates claimed that Iran might have contributed to the destabilized situation in Bahrain and elsewhere in the Middle East. If American officials continue to express anxiety about Iranian machinations, they will implicitly encourage Saudi rulers’ tendency to view every development beyond and within their borders through a sectarian lens.
Moreover, Saudi leaders understandably have trouble separating what they perceive as Shiite activity in Bahrain from Shiite agitations in their own Eastern province, where a majority of Saudi Shiites reside. In fact, protests have occurred in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province simultaneously in the past. Recently, Shiites protested in the Eastern Province in response to the Bahraini government’s demolition of Shiite mosques; thus, the connection between events in Bahrain and the Eastern Province seems crystal clear to Saudi leaders, who ultimately fear Iranian meddling in their own back yard.
This being the case, Saudi leaders may project their alarmed, sectarian, Iran-based view of Bahraini unrest on any calls for improvement amongst Shias in the Eastern Province. Since the argument that “Iran is causing trouble again” resonates in Washington, the US might remain passive if the Saudis claim that Iran has a hand in any potential unrest in the Eastern Province and condone any suppression of Shiite demands for improvement or change.
This is a worrisome possibility for Saudi Arabia’s Shiites, who have discarded their old anti-regime disposition and reaffirmed their loyalty to the House of Saud. One can only hope that Saudi Arabia’s senior princes will continue Abdullah’s virtuous project and embrace this population.
— Salman Al-Rashid


2 comments on “Saudi Arabia’s Shiites: Caught in the Middle

  1. Warren Metzler says:

    Every human being has two contexts for each activity he does. His real context: the goal he actually pursued, the major actions he took, and the major aspects on which he focused. And his preferred context: the goal, actions taken, and aspects focused on, that he wants to believe in his mind, and promote to others, that he acted in accord with. And, in many people, in many of the activities they do, the gap between their real and preferred contexts is so large it makes the Atlantic Ocean appear to be a small puddle.
    Salman has done a great job of giving us the preferred context of Saudi empire operations. Which, I propose, is light years away from the real context. That real context being somewhere along the lines of “We as a family run Saudi Arabia, it is our manifest destiny; and whatever religion, financial expenditure, public or private policy we have to invent to maintain our destiny we will do”.
    Universal rights are not universal because people assign them to all. Universal rights are how God hardwired all humans to operate who are to become mature, and achieve the full potential God gave to every human; as in have access to and take advantage of human rights and achieve one’s full potential, or be denied access to those rights and have progressive degeneration and destruction occur. There are many, but certain relevant to the Saudi situation are the rights to be free, speak your mind at any time, drive a car when a woman, worship any religion you wish, and have a government whose sole role is to provide you with the infrastructure necessary for you and your fellow citizens to each achieve her full potential.
    This, I believe, is the underlying foundation of the Arab Spring. And I propose the Arab Spring will not end until EACH AND EVERY country in the ME is a free enterprise democracy. It is time we in the US recognize that, and begin to have all our writings and interactions with Saudi Arabia to repeat the need for them to recognize the inevitability of this, and get with the program sooner than latter. And stop acting like that is a real country that deserves respect.


  2. Jamal says:

    Not sure what you’re trying to get at here.
    What I note, apart from the clone look a likes from the Family planning programme — not helped by those strange standard little jet black goaty chin hugging facial hair outcrops (don’t they get tired of running toothbrush and vanity hair blackener though each morning?) is this:
    1. The king and his cabal would be tossed out tomorrow by the mad mullahs just like the Shah of Iran was if he tried to bring these theocratic wizards out of the dark ages and into the modern world — e.g. women driving cars for example (which btw Hillary has come out to publicly support it seems).
    2. Iran is a democracy with elections whereas the Saudi Family oil estate is still run by the Big Man principle. Not an election in sight for anyone — even after 100 years of women voting in the western world. Saudi Inc. is not a country — it is a corporation founded on dubious historical legitimacy to protecting the two sacred mosques (the so called kings of Jordon have more claim if we look at history).
    3. The whole sunna/shia split is the result of an early civil war in Islam between members of Muhammad’s immediate family (and which largely reflects the traditional Persian-Arab tribal issues) — it is no basis for a modern governance system. Claiming people of different beliefs or interpretations are outside the fold is simply a convenient Wahhabi policy to justify the status quo set up after the British were pushed out.
    4. Much of the oil revenue money poring into the Saudi Family treasury goes into either arms purchases or funding Wahhabi mosques and conservative Imams etc in foreign lands. The same hard and soft ‘infrastructure’ that promotes Islamic fundamentalist ideology in the West to ensure that this fanatical innovation is the only ‘official’ version on show. The very same ideology and culture that legitimated Osama bin Laden’s actions (in his own mind at least).
    Put this together (and more if one wanted to keep digging) and what we have is a repressive regime that has no legitimacy or relevance in the modern world other than they agreed with Nixon in the 1970s to pump oil for stability only transact in $US.
    The Saudi Family Regime (SFR) has nothing but money. All the things (including silence) that money can buy,it seems, but very little of what it can’t!
    Never mind these academic distractions about the ‘House of Saud’ and their domestic irrelevancies of which family clone takes over:
    Where is the political legitimacy for anything associated with them?
    Where is the ethical foundations of their fundamentalist autocratic rule?
    Where is their relevance in the modern world?
    Where is their public comment about the pork eating Americans on whom they so much depend?
    Who else is going to hold hands while on a stroll with GWBush? (Prey tell, was Mad King George Bush a Sunni or a Shiite?)
    Where are the grey beards of tolerant wisdom — hidden behind the vain obsession with black hair and the faux youth and vitality it allegedly represents in the Islamic mythology?
    The only thing I think these Saudi people need to do is explain their role and responsibility for promoting the people and prejudice that motivated people like Osama bin Laden! Unjustified pride and prejudice that has left a wasted decade of war and wreckage across the Middle East!
    If this autocrat is in power then let him rule and make the rules — and hold him 100% accountable! Stop this strategy of silence and distraction using Iran and Shiite and Sufi etc.
    Ok, let’s see his power at work. I want to see an edict that women can drive asap. If he cannot even achieve that then I say it is crap — and a charade — and we are not dealing with a legitimate monarch. If nothing so simple is not easy then I say we are dealing with a covert cabal of mad mullahs just like Iran. The only distinction being in Iran they are up front about it.
    They like to think they are living in the 1440s AH — to many in the modern world they are living in the 1400 CE!
    I just do not see much difference between post Shah Iran and Saudi’s Wahhabi Arabia! Is this the way the US wants it? Seems to be so imo.


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