Saudi Shiites and their role in the ‘new Saudi Arabia’

In April 2015, the Saudi public was shocked by the news that a Saudi soldier had posted a message on Twitter, wherein he had threatened Saudi Shiite citizens in Qatif with “slaughter”. Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who was then the country’s defense minister and had not yet acceded to the position of the Crown Prince, directly intervened in the matter. He ordered the interrogation of the soldier and moved the case to a military court.

Saudi record in protecting Shiite citizens

Mohammed Reda Nasrallah, a former member of the Saudi Shura Council, has narrated some details of this incident on the website ‘Sobra’. He states: “At that time, I was able to establish contact with His Highness Prince Mohammed and expressed gratitude on behalf of Shiite citizens in Qatif and Ahsa in regards to this matter. I was surprised by his reply, in which he stated: ‘This act was not meant to seek the gratefulness of Shiite citizens, as it is the state’s responsibility to ensure their safety and security and to uphold their rights.”

In May 2015, an ISIS suicide bomber blew himself up while people were praying at the Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib Mosque in the Qudeih village of Qatif city, which killed and injured dozens of worshippers. This was the first time a terrorist attack had targeted a Shiite mosque in Saudi Arabia. The authorities quickly and decisively dealt with the matter. In an immediate address to the people, King Salman said: “We are all aggrieved by the heinous crime which has targeted innocent (people) in a mosque in Qudeih. The gravity of this terror attack which contravenes Muslim and humanitarian values has caused us great pain. Anyone who has participated, planned, supported, cooperated or sympathized with this atrocious crime will be held accountable and tried and shall receive the punishment he deserves.”

Prince Mohammed bin Salman appointed Mohammed Reda Nasrallah to visit the families of the victims to convey the King’s condolences. Nasrallah states: “(The prince told me) to tell people in Qudeih that those martyred in the attack will be treated like soldiers martyred in battles. The same applies to those injured in this painful incident. The state will pay 1 million riyals to each martyr’s family and 0.5 million riyals to those injured.”

In the same month, King Salman ordered the rebuilding of the mosque. The Saudi government has shown great seriousness, dedication and efficiency in tackling all cases of terrorist attacks that targeted Shiite mosques and congregation halls in recent years. It has substantially increased its security and intelligence efforts to prevent future attacks. It has also enhanced levels of cooperation between security forces and the people in providing protection to Qatif region, which has endured the threat of terrorism from ISIS, ‘takfiri’ groups and criminal gangs in Al-Awamiyah. Security forces have acted judiciously by applying both caution as well as decisive and quick action.

Shiite role in strengthening the nation

Historically speaking, Shiite citizens joined the third Saudi state early in 1913, when Hasa and Qatif voluntarily came under the authority of King Abdulaziz bin Abdulrahman. There was no resistance or fighting involved. King Abdulaziz guaranteed the people of these regions right to worship and to practice their religious rituals according to the rulings of the Shiite Jaafari sect.

The trust established between Shiite citizens and the King has lasted over the decades. Majority of citizens in the eastern province, which is rich in oil resources, are Shiite. Many of them work in Aramco which was earlier called the Arabian-American Oil Company. They helped build the company’s factories, extract oil from wells, manage facilities and train employees.

Therefore, they have directly participated in developing the kingdom’s economy. They also have also contributed in fields of business, education, banking and several government sectors and played an important role in the establishment of the Jubail Industrial City. One of the most prominent figures that helped develop this city was Engineer Jamil al-Jishi, who later served as Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Tehran.

This efficient participation in establishing the economy was appreciated by the political command but it angered extremists who belonged to the “takfiri” movement which had its own political and jurisprudential vision towards the followers of other sects. This movement is an extension of the Ikhwan (the Brotherhood of those who obeyed Allah) whom King Abdulaziz confronted in the famous battle of Sabilla in 1929. The battle was sparked by the movement’s radical position which the king believed was detrimental to the functioning of the government and contradicted the concepts of the modern state.

The bane of ‘political Islam’

The extremists’ “sectarian” stance worsened after the Islamic Revolution broke out in Iran in 1979, followed by the occupation of the Grand Mosque of Mecca by Juhayman al-Otaybi and his group of extremists in November 1979. These events caused ‘sectarian polarization’ and gave impetus to movements of ‘political Islam’ in both Sunni and Shiite communities.

The Islamic Sahwa (awakening) which emerged out of a mishmash of Salafism, Sururism and the Muslim Brotherhood was the Sunni counterpart to the Iranian Revolution, while the latter produced its own political movements like Hezbollah, Khat al-Imam Movement and the Islamic Dawa Party. This political and jurisprudential legacy had a negative impact on the Saudi-Shiite community, who found themselves in the middle of a region witnessing a war between Iran and Iraq and a conflict between Sunni and Shiite Islamists. At the same time, some international political powers were trying to exploit their cause to pressure and blackmail the Saudi government in international arenas.

In 1993, the Saudi Shiite opposition was allowed in the Kingdom as part of King Fahd’s initiative that was based on his belief that they are citizens who must remain in their country and that issues can be resolved through dialogue. King Fahd’s belief was the result of the Reform Movement (the main faction of the Saudi Shiite opposition outside the kingdom) which had said it opposed Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Back then, Sheikh Hassan al-Saffar, the movement’s leader, called on Saudi Shiite youths to confront the invasion and stand with the government against Iraqi troops. The Reform Movement also rejected carrying out any security and military tasks that served Iran. The dispute between the Movement and Tehran thus escalated and many of its leaders left for Damascus, London and other cities. This developed a positive ‘patriotic’ image about them and showed they were not the proverbial ‘fifth column’ that was conspiring against the kingdom and its interests.

In September 2004, the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported what Sheikh Saffar had said about the US State Department’s report on religious freedoms. Saffar said: “How do the Americans talk about the violation of religious freedoms and human rights in this or that country when they sponsor and support the most hideous crimes which authorities of the Israeli occupation practice against the Palestinian people who hold on to their legitimate right to attain freedom and independence?” Saffar also condemned “the false slogans and reports issued by American parties about human rights and the violation of religious freedoms.” He clearly voiced his rejection of exploiting the Shiite to pressure Saudi Arabia in international arenas. I was visiting Saffar’s office when he came to see me after talking on the phone with late Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal who thanked him for his patriotic position.

Shiite presence in Saudi Arabia is based on a conviction that strengthens by the day – a conviction that is based on loyalty to the country and its political leaders, the rejection of foreign interference and violence and the taking up of arms, maintenance of civil peace, not adopting sectarian and racist rhetoric, confirming principles of Islamic unity, adoption of dialogue and communication to resolve problems and faith in law as a reference to guaranteed equal opportunities among citizens without any sectarian discrimination.

Equal opportunities, common vision

This orientation harmonizes with Vision 2030 which hopes to establish a productive society that leads to a modern civil state where the law dominates apart from quotas or favoritism. During his recent meeting with Egyptian reporters in Cairo, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman positively talked about Saudi Shiite citizens and about their role in building the country. “Saudi Shiites contribute to the country’s renaissance and hold leadership positions,” he said. His statement has drawn adulation from among Shiite communities in the kingdom.

Shiite citizens are living their lives in the same manner as the rest of citizens. They’re going through a transitional phase in which the Crown Prince is taking a heavy burden off their shoulders –a burden which they have borne for a long time, which is the “extremist fundamentalist rhetoric”. The Crown Prince has promised to “destroy extremists today and immediately”. Therefore Shiite citizens, as well as moderates, will no longer be under the pressure and dominance of extremism which had infiltrated their society in previous years and prevented many of them from carrying out their national duties as they wanted to.

Shiites in Saudi Arabia – and all the Saudi people – now have a chance to truly participate in establishing ‘the new Saudi Arabia’ and to efficiently contribute, alongside the political leadership, to build their future without any fear of ‘takfiri’ fatwas (religious edicts) or sectarian discrimination. These fatwas and practices are over now and will never return again as is confirmed by the royal will.


Author: Hassan AlMustafa

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