Commentary / World

S. Arabia's Shiites stand up

by Mai Yamani

BEIRUT — On Feb. 24, violent confrontations between Shiite pilgrims and the Saudi religious police and security forces occurred at the entrance to the prophet Muhammad’s mosque in Medina. The timing and location of the clashes may have serious repercussions for domestic security, if not for the regime itself.

Some 2,000 Shiite pilgrims gathered near the mosque that houses the prophet’s tomb for the commemoration of Muhammad’s death, an act of worship that the ruling Saudi Wahhabi sect considers heretical and idolatrous. Thus, the religious police of the Committee for the Preservation of Virtue and the Prohibition of Vice, armed with sticks and backed by police firing into the air, tried to disperse the pilgrims. The pilgrims resisted. Three pilgrims died and hundreds were injured in the ensuing stampede. A number of pilgrims remain in detention, among them 15 teenage boys.

Soon after, representatives of Saudi Arabia’s Shiite community sought a meeting with King Abdullah in an effort to free the detainees. Dialogue seemed like a promising strategy: 10 days earlier, Abdullah had announced a promising reform agenda for the country. But the King refused to meet the Shiite delegation.

The violence outside the Medina mosque has led to demonstrations in front of Saudi embassies in London, Berlin, and The Hague, with protesters demanding independence from the Saudi state.

Such demonstrations are illegal in Saudi Arabia. But domestic suppression has only served to export and expand the problem. And now, the regime’s policies of repression, discrimination, and antagonism directed at the Shiites and other politically marginalized groups increasingly threaten the Saudi state with disintegration.

The Shiites are a special case, constituting 75 percent of the population in the Eastern Province, Saudi Arabia’s main oil-producing region, and identifying far more strongly with Shiites across the border in Iraq than with the Saudi state. Indeed, the empowerment of Iraq’s long-suppressed Shiites has raised expectations among Saudi Arabia’s Shiites that they, too, can gain first-class status.

From the regime’s point of view, however, Shiite Iran is now the most serious security threat. The Saudi authorities perceived the Shiite demonstrations as an assertion of Iranian policy, as they coincided precisely with Iran’s celebration of the 30th anniversary of its Islamic Revolution. Suppression of the Shiites is thus a part of Riyadh’s strategy to counter Iran’s bid for regional hegemony.

But this thinking is tremendously shortsighted. Only by transforming Saudi Arabia’s currently monolithic Saudi/Wahhabi national identity into a more inclusive one will Saudi Arabia become a model that is attractive to its minorities. Today, the disempowered Shiites are forced to seek political connections and backing from the region’s wider Shiite political movements to compensate for the discrimination they face at home.

So the choice for the Saudi rulers is stark: empower the Shiites within the system, or watch as they increase their power through external alliances. The threat that this would represent is not abstract: Saudi Arabia’s borders are very porous.

So far, King Abdullah has shown no sign of opting for a policy of inclusion — not even a token gesture, such as a Shiite minister. Moreover, Abdullah is even unable to stop Wahhabi satellite TV stations from denouncing the Shiite “heretics,” or the hundreds of Wahhabi Web sites that call for the outright elimination of the Shiites.

But non-Wahhabi Saudis, mainly Shiites, continue to resist state dogma. Until this year, they have not formed significant or open opposition movements, owing to a well-entrenched fear of repression. Shiite unrest dates back to Saudi Arabia’s establishment in 1932, and violent confrontations with the Saudi state began with the Shiite revolution in Iran.

The Iranian revolution prompted a Shiite uprising in the Eastern Province in November 1979. Saudi Arabia’s Shiites, an economically and politically marginalized community, staged an unprecedented intifada in the towns of Qatif, Saihat, Safwa, and Awamiyya. Tens of thousands of men and women demanded an end to the politics of discrimination against the Shiites.

Although, the Saudi security forces, the National Guard, and the marines crushed the rebellion, the domestic tensions that fueled it remain. And Ayatollah Khomeini challenged the Al Saud’s ideological monopoly and control of Mecca and Medina. Khomeini challenged the very concept of monarchy in Islam by declaring that “those with authority” are not kings but religious scholars.

The Saudi religious establishment has long been on alert to this rival and threatening entity. Sefr al Hawali, a prominent Saudi Wahhabi cleric, warned of the dangers of the “Shiite arch” following the Shiite intifada in Iraq in 1991. But, since the war in Iraq in 2003 and the empowerment of Shiites across the region, the Saudi regime faces sizable, restless, and politically ambitious Shiite populations in neighboring Gulf countries, especially Kuwait and Bahrain, as well as in Lebanon.

The demonstrations at Medina show that Saudi Shiites are now themselves emboldened. Indeed, they have formed an opposition movement called Khalas (Salvation), aimed at mobilizing the new generation of Shiites in the Eastern Province. In light of widened regional and political cleavages, confrontations such as occurred in the holy mosque of the prophet Muhammad could increase in frequency, size and violence.

Mai Yamani is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center, Beirut. © 2009 Project Syndicate