One need not search very intently to find that the Shiites of Saudi Arabia have been classified – in the country’s social, political and religious spheres – as second-class citizens. Research done in Saudi Arabia in 2011 and 2012 demonstrated that the vast majority of Shiites in the Kingdom share feelings of oppression and marginalization. These sentiments motivated many Saudi Shiites to take to the streets to demand justice just shortly after the start of the Arab Spring in early 2011.
The Shiite minority – largely concentrated in the Eastern Province – are estimated to make up around 5-7% of the Saudi Arabian Population. The large majority of the Kingdom’s citizens are Sunni Muslims; many of whom adhere to the rigid Wahhabi ideology, which is in principle extremely anti-Shiite.
In the Kingdom, general contempt for Shiites is by no means a hidden phenomenon; government religious publications, school materials, and many Saudi clerics are very outspoken about their disdain for Shiites. Because of this negative discourse, many Saudis have come to hold a deep hatred for Shiism, though the majority have little to no interaction with Shiites in their country.
Following the start of the Arab Spring, Saudi Shiites took to the streets in the city of Qatif, a center of Shiite political activity in the country’s Shiite majority Eastern province. These were not the first large-scale protests coming out of the city, as an earlier generation had taken to the streets after the 1979 Iranian revolution to demand justice from their Saudi rulers.
Those protests – in what has been referred to as the ‘Shiite Intifada of 1979’ – were met with brutality and bloodshed from the Saudi security forces. The Minister of the Interior issued rushed statements blaming the Shiites for the violence and portraying them as the aggressors. Decades later, the Saudi Government used similar tactics to respond to the recent Qatif protests.
To foster understanding between Shiites and Sunnis in Saudi Arabia, the Shiite minority’s concerns and voices must be heard. The current system in Saudi Arabia leaves Shiites ultimately voiceless. Robbed of the right to speak for themselves, they are often represented by corrupt clerics with ulterior political motives leading to confused public opinion and distorted popular understandings of the Shiite communities living in their country.
Listening to Shiite Voices in Saudi Arabia
In a study, conducted by a student at the American University of Paris, and published by the Gulf Institute in Washington D.C., Shiites from the Kingdom were interviewed about their daily struggles living in a majority Sunni society. The interviews consisted of eighteen questions touching on issues including equality in the work place, social integration, freedom of worship, Saudi misconceptions of Shiites, and Shiite streets protests. Both men and women were interviewed, and the average participant age was 31.5 years old. The majority of participants were professionals (although there were also a number of students and a few stay-at-home mothers) and came from Qatif, while the rest were from other cities in the Eastern Province, including Dammam, Hassa, Khobar and Saihat.
Participants provided very similar responses to most of the interview questions, suggesting a shared sentiment of discrimination among the Shiite minority. 100% of respondents said they had experienced some form of discrimination from their fellow Saudi citizens based on their Shiite identity. Many Shiites of the Eastern Province are very well educated, yet all those interviewed believed they did not have equal access to jobs.
Stories ranged from being kicked out of mosques in Medina and Riyadh, to receiving lower salaries compared to their Sunni colleagues. Some lost their jobs once their companies realized they were Shiite, while others lost friendships when their Shiite faith was discovered. Many who took classes on Islam were taught that Shiites were infidels. Others were accused of loyalty to Iran. They told stories about the demolition of mosques in their cities, and recounted how not a single Shiite majority city in the Kingdom had a university.
Like all Muslims, Shiites believe in the oneness of God and that Mohammed was his Prophet. Yet, almost all participants believed that the majority of Saudi Sunnis (they estimated an average of 67%) did not consider Shiites to be Muslim, though they all stated that the majority of Shiites (they estimated an average of 94.5%) did consider Sunnis to be their brothers and sisters in Islam.
Participants shared plentiful myths some Saudis have of Shiites.They are those who believe that Shiites participated in and condoned perverse sexual practices, and that Shiites revered Ali ibn Abu Talib, the son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad, as God. A surprisingly large number of participants said that some Sunnis in Saudi Arabia believe that Shiites have “hidden tails.”
All but one participant stated that inter-marriage between Shiites and Sunnis in Saudi Arabia was extremely uncommon and in general socially unacceptable. Fatwas given by prominent Sunni clerics declare marriages between Sunnis and Shiites to be religiously forbidden. But Shiite participants of the study mentioned that for them, wedding a Sunni was not a religious issue, but it is rather about social stigma.
95% of participants believed that even in cities where the Sunni and Shiite populations were largely mixed, the majority of inhabitants remained segregated. 100% of those interviewed stated that the Sunni-Shiite divide in Saudi Arabia was not an issue that was open for discussion in the country and was generally avoided. As such, participants felt they had no opportunity to respond to the distorted myths about their faith. This circumstance left many of the Shiite interlocutors feeling they were misunderstood by the majority Sunni population in their country.
Many Shiites feel the need to hide their identity in order to maintain respect from their fellow citizens and protect their economic livelihood. Many feel isolated, misunderstood, and oppressed. It is for these reasons that many Shiites have taken to the streets in the last year – hoping to be granted religious freedom, to have a voice, to be treated with respect and equality by their fellow Saudis.
Conclusion: Will the Protests Radicalize?
Participants stated they had taken to the streets demanding justice, fair treatment, their basic human rights, and for a number of Shiite activists to be released from prison. The majority of the participants initially stated they were not demanding the fall of the Al Saud regime and merely sought reforms. However, for many, this sentiment changed in 2012. After over a year of protesting without result, a large number of Shiites were shot and killed in Qatif by Saudi security forces, and a prominent Shiite Cleric, Nimer Al Nimer, was arrested in July of 2012. As a result, many in Qatif have begun to call for the fall of the house of Al Saud.
Though there are reforms and measures that could have led to a better Saudi Arabia, the window of opportunity for change may have passed. If reforms cannot stop the protests, there are a number of possible consequences. It is quite possible that the Saudi regime may be unable to repress another generation of Shiites or the Shiites of the Eastern Province may also be facing the prospect of massacre at the hands of the regime.
As time passes, more lives are lost, and frustrations rise – finding a middle ground will becomes less possible and any small spark could ignite a huge fire within Saudi Arabia.
*Bayan Perazzo is a university professor whose specialties are in Middle Eastern and North African politics and Islamic Studies. She tweets at @BintBattuta87.