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