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Future Political Outlook for Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Hossein Kebriaeezadeh
Expert on Middle East Issues

Shia Muslims constitute the most important minority, and of course the most discriminated group of people, living within the national borders of Saudi Arabia. All groups affiliated with Saudi Shias, which according to the most conservative estimates make up 5-15 percent of the kingdom’s population, mostly live in the Eastern Province and the cities of Qatif (97 percent), al-Ahsa (60 percent), and Dammam (20 percent). Shia people in al-Ahsa and Qatif form the biggest Shia population in the Persian Gulf region after Iraq and they are also the biggest Shia population in the Arab world after Lebanon and Iraq.

The region, which is currently inhabited by Saudi Shias, is part of the “Greater Bahrain,” which in the course of its tumultuous history, has been the scene of major protests against such Sunni government as Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties.

The policy of discrimination against Shias, which started soon after the martyrdom of Hadhrat Ali, the first Shia imam, in 40 A.H., continued incessantly – except for about eight decades under the rule of the Portuguese in the 16th century A.D. – until it turned into official state-run suppression and discrimination after the establishment of the Saudi kingdom in 1932. Marginalization of the Shia minority has led to widespread protest movements not all of which can be attributed to religious reasons or considered as emanating from ideological grounds, but as said before, deprivation from economic, social and economic opportunities has been the main reason behind defensive reactions shown by Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia.

This comes while the place of residence of this minority is among the richest hubs of oil production in the world, but due to an ethnic political power structure and strong links between that structure and the Wahhabi ideology, which considers Shias as infidels and heretics, they get the smallest share of development in Saudi Arabia.

Such discriminatory treatment of Shias in Saudi Arabia, which has also spread to educational affairs, employment and share of citizenship rights, has prompted this group, which has been always active and influential in history of Saudi Arabia’s developments, to try and remake its identity and roles in the Saudi society. As a result, during the 1970s, the revolutionary policy turned into the dominant approach of this group, so that, Shias were considered as an opposition group to the ruling establishment and gave birth to various protest currents in Saudi Arabia. Gradually, however, doubts increased about continuation of this process and it gave way to reforms and the relative tolerance shown toward Shias by former Saudi King Abdullah. The king introduced new civil policies and decided to follow up on reforms he had promised the opposition groups. The best example in this regard is theoretical and practical changes in the policy of Harakat al-Islamiya (Islamic Movement), whose policy was quite aggressive at the outset of the group. However, as conditions changed and following negotiations in 2003 and government’s call on prominent Shia opposition figures to play their role, the group’s aggressive policy was replaced with a civil and reformist one and later on, they even redefined their identity and approaches, introducing themselves as patriotic groups loyal to the ruling regime. Of course, this process did not last long and changed abruptly following the fall of former Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, and subsequent empowerment of Shias in the region and gained more momentum and was completed after King Salman ascended to the Saudi throne.

The execution of prominent Saudi Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, which was actually a result of Riyadh’s regional confrontation with Tehran, undermined King Abdullah’s achievements almost overnight and increased pessimism among Shias toward the ruling establishment. As a result, Saudi Shias once again and like the early years of the 1970s, opted for confrontational approaches varying from silent protests to active encounter with the government.

However, the new Saudi king has been lucky as Shia groups have been lacking solidarity and internal coherence as a result of which their protests have not gone beyond insignificant moves aimed at restoring their citizenship rights.

Without a doubt, the luck of the Saudi king is sure to wear off sooner or later. As a result, although all Saudi courts use such accusations as fighting against the government, inciting tribal conflicts, and not obeying the king’s orders to suppress the country’s Shias, continuation of pressures will finally cause various Shia groups to give up their differences in favor of achieving the greater goal. The political capacity and potential that is embedded in Shia ideology, big population, rich economic resources in the region they live, as well as geopolitical conditions in the region, geographical propinquity to other Shia groups in the region, security weaknesses of the ruling establishment and wide gaps within the royal family are among major factors, which can energize secessionist moves taken by Shias in Saudi Arabia.

In the meantime, Riyadh’s follow-up of policies that spread terrorism in the region and its high investment in increasing Saudi Arabia’s regional influence have caused the Saudi regime to ignore opposition and underground currents in the country as a result of which conditions are now ripe to put an end to centuries of political passivity of Shias in this country.

Key WordsShia Muslims, Saudi Arabia, Political Outlook, Eastern Province, Qatif, al-Ahsa, Dammam, Persian Gulf, Iraq, Arab World, Lebanon, Greater Bahrain, Suppression, Discrimination, Minority, Harakat al-Islamiya, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, King Abdullah, King Salman, Economic Resources, Terrorism, political Passivity, Kebriaeezadeh

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*Political and Social Reasons for Failure of Terrorist Attacks in Iran: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Political-and-Social-Reasons-for-Failure-of-Terrorist-Attacks-in-Iran.htm

*Photo Credit: Aljazeera

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