The Saudi Shia: Between an Iranian rock and a Saudi hard place

The Saudi Shia community has been caught in the struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia for regional hegemony.

Saudi Shia
Shia Muslims prepare graves during a mass funeral for victims of a suicide attack on a mosque in Qatif on May 25, 2015 [File: Reuters]

Last month, Saudi Arabia quietly beheaded 37 people, mostly Shia men from the country’s Eastern Province. They had all been sentenced in what international human rights organisations called “grossly unfair” trials – some for “spying” for Iran and others for “joining a terrorist” group. Many of them had alleged they were tortured into signing false confessions.

None of the bodies was given back to the families, who were told not to hold funerals. Two of them were pinned to a post for the public to see – a measure clearly meant to stir fear within the Shia minority, which makes up between 10 and 15 percent of the Saudi population and is mostly based in the Eastern Province.

Although the Saudi authorities have tried to present this case as a national security issue – trying the 37 men in a special court that deals with terrorism and portraying them as Iranian agents – it has little to do with either terror acts or Iranian influence. 

Shia disenfranchisement in Saudi Arabia has deep historical roots and only recently has been instrumentalised in the growing regional conflict between Riyadh and Tehran. The only “crime” of the Shia men who were executed in April and the many more who are still being held in Saudi jails was to demand the end of systemic discrimination and human rights abuses.

A history of oppression

Tensions between the Shia population of al-Hasa region (roughly today’s Eastern Province) and the House of Saud have a long history and go back to the time when Mohammed Ibn Saud, the son of the founder of the dynasty, adopted the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab in late 18th century and used them to legitimise his rule. As he and his successors sought to expand the territory they controlled eastward under the banner of fighting infidels and deviants, the Shia of al-Hasa resisted.

In their raids, Wahhabi fighters would often destroy shrines and places of worship belonging to the Shia and Sufi orders; in 1802, an army led by Mohammed’s son Saud even attacked one of the holiest cities for Shia Muslims, Karbala in neighbouring Iraq, looting and destroying shrines, damaging the Hussein mosque, massacring a large part of the civilian population, and leaving a painful mark in Shia collective memory.

For a century, al-Hasa would slip in and out of Saudi control, until Abdel Aziz Ibn Saud, the founder of the Saudi kingdom, retook it in 1913, unleashing a campaign of repression against its Shia population who opposed his rule. As he started building the foundations of the Saudi state, Wahhabi attitudes towards the Shia were woven into its institutions.

As a result, Shia Muslims to this day remain highly disenfranchised within Saudi society. For example, they are not allowed to hold key posts within the ministries of defence and interior, the National Guard, and the royal court. They face various restrictions on religious worship; permits for building Shia mosques are often denied and, consequently, in places like the city of Dammam, there is only one mosque for the hundreds of thousands of Shia Muslims living there. Processions during Ashoura, the day commemorating the death of Prophet Mohammed’s grandson Hussein in the battle of Karbala, were banned until 2005 and today are still curbed in various ways.

Most importantly, although the majority of Saudi oil reserves fall within the territory of the Eastern Province, the Shia minority hardly benefits from the country’s massive oil revenues. Since the founding of the Saudi state in 1932, it has suffered systematic socioeconomic marginalisation and dispossession.

In addition, Saudi religious authorities – vested until recently with almost unrestricted power to police the public – have been allowed to spread anti-Shia rhetoric and even insert it into school curricula. As a result, anti-Shia attitudes among the general population are widespread and have led in the past to various attacks on the community.

Over the decades of systemic discrimination and disenfranchisement, Shia anger would periodically boil over and result in mass protests, which would always get brutally suppressed by Riyadh.

In 1979, the revolutionary upheaval in nearby Iran spurred mass demonstrations in the Shia-majority city of Qatif, which were met with a violent clampdown and executions. 

In 2011, the Arab Spring also inspired pro-democracy protests in the Eastern Province. The Saudi authorities were quick to put down the unrest, opening fire on demonstrators and arresting many. It is for participating in these protests that a lot of the 37 men were arrested.

They, along with a number of other activists calling for the end of religious apartheid and sectarian discrimination, were charged with terrorism. In 2016, Shia leader Nimr al-Nimr, who had supported the protests and had long been critical of the House of Saud, was executed.

Geopolitical games

Being well aware that the socioeconomic punishment, religious apartheid and marginalisation of the Shia community is fuelling anger among the Shia, Saudi authorities are in constant fear that the community might start an uprising calling for independence. Shia Muslims have also been accused of being Iranian agents and portrayed as “the fifth column” in the country.

Iran, for its part, while pursuing regional hegemony through various Shia proxy groups, has also sought to exploit the unstable situation in the Eastern Province. Thus, in 2016, the Iranian authorities allowed a crowd demonstrating against al-Nimr’s execution storm the Saudi Embassy in Tehran and set it on fire. After the April executions, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was quick to make use of them in his political rhetoric against Saudi Arabia and its relations with the US.

But Iran itself is repressing not just its own minorities (including Sunnis and Kurds), but also members of the Shia majority and is hardly a champion of human rights. This is well-known within the Saudi Shia community, which has not welcomed attempts by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to claim leadership of all Shia worldwide.

The Saudi Shia tend to follow their own religious leadership and look up to other Shia clerics such as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Thus, to present Shia protests and opposition to the House of Saud as an “Iranian plot” is not only completely inaccurate, but it also whitewashes a long history of tensions between the community and the Saudi rulers and their Wahhabi backers and the institutionalised sectarian discrimination in the country.

The Saudi Shia, like many other Saudi citizens, want their human rights to be respected, to have equal opportunity and access to the massive national wealth. They also want religious freedom and protection against hate crimes.

But as the House of Saud grows ever more anxious about its unstable position, it will not only increase the oppression of its people, but also escalate its struggle against Iran. After all, having a “foreign enemy” boogeyman which can be used to justify any amount of internal repression is the easiest way to control a discontented population. And in this game of regime survival, the Saudi Shia community will likely continue to pay the steepest price. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.