Abdulaziz Sager on Saudi-Iranian diplomatic deal
Abdulaziz Sager on Saudi-Iranian diplomatic deal
Report 45 / Middle East & North Africa

The Shiite Question in Saudi Arabia

From Saudi Arabia's establishment in 1932, its minority Shiite population has been subject to discrimination and sectarian incitement. Beginning in the early 1990s, with then Crown Prince Abdullah's active support, the government took steps to improve inter-sectarian relations.

Executive Summary

From Saudi Arabia's establishment in 1932, its minority Shiite population has been subject to discrimination and sectarian incitement. Beginning in the early 1990s, with then Crown Prince Abdullah's active support, the government took steps to improve inter-sectarian relations. But the measures were modest, and tensions are rising. The war in Iraq has had a notable effect, strengthening Shiite aspirations and Sunni suspicions and generally deepening confessional divisions throughout the region. King Abdullah needs to act resolutely to improve the lot of the two-million strong Shiite community and rein in domestic expressions of anti-Shiite hostility.

While resisting calls from tribal warriors to suppress Shiites violently, the Kingdom from the outset pacified and marginalised them. Shiites remain under-represented in official positions, and students complain of open hostility from Sunni instructors. Jobs in the police and military are rare and promotion prospects there rarer still. While restrictions have loosened, Shiites continue to face obstacles to the free and open observance of their faith.

During much of the nation's history, Shiites were passive but stimulated by events in neighbouring Iran in 1979, their leaders mobilised youth around a message that directly challenged the regime, resonated with feelings of religious and community oppression, and triggered significant mass civil disobedience. Although this phase lasted less than a decade, the events, and the state's heavy-handed response, figure prominently in collective memories.

The Shiite leadership gradually moderated its views, recognising the limitations of agitation and violence and seeking improved ties with a regime whose legitimacy it came to acknowledge and whose role as a bulwark against more extreme Sunni militants it came to accept. In a 1993 meeting, King Fahd promised Shiite leaders to relax political restrictions in exchange for their ending active opposition from abroad. The relative quiet that has prevailed since reflects the enduring impact of that agreement and acknowledgment by Shiite leaders that violence is unlikely to yield results. But it is a quiet that, without further concrete progress, risks exhausting itself.

Saudi Arabia faces a new opportunity and a new urgency, both fuelled in part by external events. The 11 September 2001 attacks and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's subsequent terror campaign inside the Kingdom focused government attention on the most militant forms of religious extremism. They also spurred rapprochement between non-violent Islamists and liberals, Sunni and Shiite, who, faced with the threat of violent Sunni militancy, joined in calling for political and religious reform.

But if al-Qaeda's activities offered a chance to improve sectarian relations, the war in Iraq has pulled in the opposite direction. Emboldened by the example of Iraqi co-religionists, some Saudi Shiites believe they ought to press further, while the sight of Shiite dominance in a neighbouring country heightens Sunni suspicion. Ominously, a rising number of Saudi Sunni jihadi militants have been drawn to Iraq, motivated by opposition to the U.S. but also to the Shiites' increased role. The eventual return of perhaps several hundred battle-tested Saudi mujahidin seems inevitable, raising the possibility that -- like their predecessors from Afghanistan -- they will seek a new battlefield and threaten Western and governmental targets, as well as the Shiite minority.

While sectarian tensions arguably are higher than at any time since 1979, there appears little risk today of violent sectarian confrontation, but that is no reason for complacency. Instead, steps should be taken now to defuse a potential crisis. King Abdullah signalled his support while Crown Prince for more Shiite rights, most importantly by promoting inclusive national dialogues and bringing key members of the Sunni clergy along. But his true test comes now. Moving forward will require a long-term commitment to political and social integration and to combating domestic hate-speech, including:

  • expanding Shiite presence in government institutions, in particular in national and local councils including the Majlis al-Shura and Regional Councils;
  • lifting remaining restrictions on Shiite religious rituals and practices, specifically by allowing construction of mosques and community centres (husseiniyyas) and the production, printing, and circulation of religious materials within their communities. The decision by the government to permit observance of Ashura in 2004 was an important first measure; and
  • encouraging tolerance, eliminating anti-Shiism in mosques and schools, and curbing statements that incite anti-Shiite violence. Alongside its crack-down on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the government spearheaded an effort to promote tolerance and diversity. But, expressions of sectarian hatred remain common, including by persons in positions of religious authority. The government should organise a national information program encouraging tolerance and emphasising national unity.

Western governments are justifiably concerned about restrictions on religious freedom; in 2004 the U.S. State Department listed Saudi Arabia as a country of concern in this respect. But foreign pressure directly targeting the issue, especially in light of growing suspicions that the U.S. is hostile to Islam and championing Shiites regionally, could backfire. The U.S. and the EU would do better by focusing their public efforts on the need for broad reform, with the goal of expanding the rights and political participation of all Saudis, irrespective of sect.

Riyadh/Amman/Brussels, 19 September 2005

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