Shi’ism in Saudia Arabia

This was an interesting article in the Foreign Policy magazine this month.

There are estimated to be between 1.5 million and 2 million Shi’a in Saudi Arabia, mainly inhabiting the oil-producing east region. The Saudi Shi’as, who represent about 10 per cent of the population complain about socio-economic harrasment and discrimination, including exclusion from top political or military posts. They have been shown in the recent past to assert the Sunni majority questions their loyalty to the Saudi state and is suspicious of their religious affiliation with Shi’a-majority Iran. The Shi’a’s dismiss accusations from some Sunni sections that the Shia community’s loyalty lies east, to Iran, rather than Saudi Arabia, even if the Shia do look for religious guidance from ayatollahs in Iraq and Iran. However the Saudi-Iranian rivalry continues to manifest itself in one form or another in the socio-political and geopolitical terms, as it does in other Muslim countries in the region. In realistic terms this rivalry seems a bit far fetched and it difficult to understand what both sides are getting out of this friction , which has lasted over decades, other than hostility and violence in Muslim communities. It is also worthwhile to ask why are only Saudi Shia’s are being singled out for having suspect loyalties when Shia’s exist in virtually every Muslim community. Why and how does spiritual reverance for the ayatollah’s translate into political alliegance? The ayatollahs themselves do not pledge alliegance to the states that they live in and keep their distance from the political sphere (except a handful in Iran) then why are ordinary Shi’a muslims expected to the opposite and conflate religion with politics.

Some members of Saudi’s influential, ultraconservative Wahabi’s publicly deem other Muslim sects as infidels and view the Shi’a with open disdain. An affirmation of this comes with two leading Wahabi clerics recently issuing  statements accusing the Shi’a of being ‘heretics’. But, interestingly there has been instance in the news of Shi’a leaders playing down the notion of rising tensions by saying that the distrust between the two communities is centuries old. One wonders if such ‘leaders’ actually represent the opinion of the Shia population and if they make such statements to gain favor from or to appease the Saudi officials from further harrasing the community. Conversely there is always the possiblity that the hype of Shia persecution is incessantly sustained for geopolitical motives to create news and reflect badly on the Saudi government by external (read Iranian) regional rivals. The truth  probably stands between the two factors.

The few available voices of the Saudi Shias and even Saudi Sunnis speaking about their Shia countrymen such as mentioned below, reveal interesting insights into the actual dynamics of Shia existence in the Saudi kingdom

2 responses

  1. I found the last link you posted to be a particularly illuminating demonstration of some of the myths surrounding Shi’ism that are perpetuated by the Saudi Wahhabi state. The fixation on self-flagellation during ‘Ashura, the idea that Shi’as venerate ‘Ali more than the Prophet Muhammed (SAW) – these are all perceptions of Shi’as that I have encountered while visiting Sunni-majority Middle Eastern countries. I think that your assessment of the geopolitical element to these disputes is absolutely on point. The fact that the Saudis have suggested that Shi’as are more allegiant to Ayatollahs in Iran than the country where the Prophet was born shows just how much power politics have informed the religious divide in Saudi Arabia.

  2. The Saudi state and its officials/adherents are incredibly anti-Shia. Part of this is just that the state views any faction as a political threat, and does everything in its power to quell this potential threat. But there is also a deep-seated animosity towards Shias, and it’s utterly groundless and much stronger than the political aspect. It is absolutely sad and ironic that such deliberate division within the Muslim community is most pronounced in Saudi, the very birthplace of Islam. Saudis are so overtly anti-Shia: when a revolutionary movement emerged in Bahrain, a Shia-majority nation with a Sunni government, Saudi dispatched troops to thwart the uprising. It’s quite unfortunate, but it’s totally improbable that any appreciable change will come about in Saudi in the near future. The establishment is extremely strong and has managed to use fear and economics to keep the populace on a very tight leash. Shias are so repressed that they don’t even have any publicly-disclosed majlisis during Muharram; they don’t even share the fact that they’re Shia.

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