The Shi‘a Question in Saudi Arabia

By Raihan Ismail | Associate Lecturer - Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies - Australian National University | Jun 26, 2015
The Shi‘a Question in Saudi Arabia
A scene after the Shi'i mosque bombing in Dammam, May 2015.

Are religious doctrinal differences primarily responsible for stoking intercommunal fear and hatred? What roles have state, sub-state and transnational actors played in fomenting sectarian discord? And what could be done to avert sectarian violence, to foster tolerance and peaceful coexistence, and to promote reconciliation?

The essays in this series tackle these and other salient questions pertaining to sectarianism in the MENA and Asia Pacific regions. Read more ...


Saudi Arabia is a Sunni-majority state and home to a significant Shi‘i minority, most of whom live in the Eastern Province. The Shi‘a there are mainly of the Twelver sect, which is also the major Shi‘i sect in Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, and Bahrain. The Eastern Province Twelvers are not the only Shi‘a in Saudi Arabia—there are sizable communities of Twelvers in Medina and Isma‘ilis in Najran—but it is they who sit at the center of the Shi‘i political movement in the kingdom.

In the 1950s and the 1960s, Shi‘i activism in the Eastern Province was pursued within the frameworks of socialism and pan-Arab nationalism. Among the activists were workers who demanded better conditions from the oil company Aramco. This kind of activism was largely non-sectarian, as Sunni workers also participated in industrial action.[1]

This trend changed when Saudi Shi‘i students located in Kuwait began to organize themselves politically. They became involved in the Movement of Vanguards’ Missionaries (MVM), a transnational Shi‘i network led by the Iraqi cleric Muhammad al-Shirazi, who had found refuge in Kuwait after fleeing Ba‘thist Iraq. Al-Shirazi was the spiritual head of the movement, but his nephew Muhammad Taqi al-Mudarrisi was responsible for its operations.[2] In 1975, al-Mudarrisi and his brother Hadi launched the Saudi and Bahraini branches of the MVM. This marked the beginning of a new period of Shi‘i activism in opposition to the Saudi state.

Hassan al-Saffar was the figurehead of the Saudi division of the MVM. In 1979, he led a Shi‘i uprising in the Eastern Province that was crushed by the kingdom’s security forces. He and other activists fled Saudi Arabia and opposed the Saudi government from exile.

By the 1990s it was clear to the likes of al-Saffar that confrontational activism had failed to achieve any real benefits for the Saudi Shi‘a. Many of his cohort diluted their rhetoric and promoted rapprochement with the Saudi government. These reconciliation efforts were well received. Under the leadership of Kings Fahd and Abdullah, the ruling family promised reforms to improve the plight of the Saudi Shi‘a. Some Shi‘a rejected the reconciliation process, including Hijazi Hezbollah, a militant Shi‘i group, and the cleric Nimr al-Nimr,[3] but many Shi‘a accepted the regime’s promises. Promise was also seen in the ascendancy of Abdullah as a possible reformist ruler (Abdullah became king in 2005 but had been the kingdom’s de facto head for some ten years).

In an effort to reach out to the Shi‘i community, King Fahd and later King Abdullah released Shi‘i political prisoners, built and improved infrastructure in Shi‘i areas, and loosened restrictions on the observance of Shi‘i rituals, though these reforms were often partial. For example, the celebration of Ashura was permitted in Qatif, a Shi‘i area, in 2004, but the celebration remained prohibited in other, more heterogeneous, areas of the Eastern Province.[4]

While there have been positive steps toward the Shi‘a, although often hesitant, from Saudi Arabia’s political establishment, they have been close to absent from the religious establishment. The dominant Wahhabi Sunni religious authorities continue to characterize Shi‘a as non-believers. These clerics enjoy positions of social leadership, often supplemented by formal bureaucratic posts and readily available platforms in a range of media outlets. Although some reformist clerics are milder in their approach to the Shi‘a, the view of the Wahhabi clerics as a whole, on both Shi‘ism as a religion and the political aspirations of the Saudi Shi‘i population, is consistently adversarial. The acceptance within the Saudi religious establishment of Twelver Shi‘ism as a legitimate part of Islam remains unlikely. Meanwhile, some Shi‘i activists and intellectuals, such as Fouad Ibrahim and Hamza al-Hassan, criticize Shi‘i leaders who continue to seek rapprochement with the government.[5]

Saudi Shi‘a: Accusations of Disloyalty to the State

Since the events of 1979, both in Iran and Saudi Arabia, members of the Wahhabi religious establishment have raised the question of the loyalty of the Shi‘a to the kingdom. The fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the subsequent elevation of the Shi‘a to elected government there, not to mention the 2006-2007 Iraqi civil war, intensified this attitude in the early part of this century.[6] Sunni clerics pointed to these events and warned of the danger (whether real or imagined) of Shi‘i political activism.

Accusations of Shi‘i transnational affiliations—particularly with Iran—are commonly made in religious sermons, lectures, and publications. Although prominent Shi‘i leaders including Hassan al-Saffar and Jafar al-Shayeb often emphasize Shi‘i loyalty to the Saudi state, they nonetheless suffer from charges of association, both ideological and material, with Shi‘i communities and governments abroad.

In an effort to counter these accusations, al-Saffar has repeatedly sought to downplay the ties of Saudi Shi‘a to the Iraqi-based Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is a source of religious reference and guidance for most Saudi Twelvers. Al-Saffar emphasizes that receiving religious guidance from external sources is not inconsistent with political fidelity to the kingdom.[7]

An incident in 2009 reignited both the expression of Shi‘i grievances and counterclaims of Shi‘i disloyalty. A visit by a group of Saudi Shi‘a to Medina’s al-Baqi cemetery in February saw clashes between the visitors and security forces. This event galvanized Shi‘i political activism, especially for those who felt that years of dialogue with the government had been fruitless. Capitalizing on these sentiments, al-Nimr, who had long rejected dialogue, began to mobilize support for renewed Shi‘i activism. He wrote a treatise addressed to the deputy governor of the Eastern Province that included both political demands and exhortations on the government to stop attacks on the Shi‘a. Wahhabi scholar Safar al-Hawali responded by emphasizing the minority status of the Shi‘a and what he considered the right of the Sunni majority to expose the Shi‘i faith to ensure the protection of the Sunnis in the kingdom.[8] A series of Saudi clerics accused the Shi‘a—and not just leaders such as al-Nimr—of plotting against both the state and Saudi Sunnis.

The “Arab Spring” and Shi‘i Dissent

The Arab uprisings that started in Tunisia in late 2010 played a crucial role in the regression of the position of the Eastern Province Shi‘a in Saudi Arabia. The ruling family was mindful of the potential threat posed by the revolutions in the Arab world and cracked down on dissent quickly and firmly. Saudis who engaged in protests, online and in the streets, were arrested. The targets of the arrests extended from liberal and secular activists to non-mainstream Sunni clerics, and Shi‘i political activism returned as a concern for the Sunni political and religious establishments. Calls for reform were seen as threatening to the survival of Arab monarchies in the region.[9] The Saudi government was determined to prevent the threat of regime change not only from permeating the kingdom’s borders but also from reaching its regional allies, such as Bahrain.

An island nation run by a Sunni monarchy but with a majority Shi‘i population, Bahrain was an early destination for the spread of the Arab Spring protests. Although the protests in Bahrain were initially cross-sectarian, it quickly became characterized as a sectarian movement for a number of reasons. The Saudi government, nervous about the events in Bahrain, decided to intervene militarily in March 2011, supporting the Al Khalifa ruling family at its invitation.[10]

Outraged by the intervention, Shi‘a in the Eastern Province, who share strong religious, historical, and social ties with the Bahraini Shi‘a, took to the streets to protest in solidarity. Some Shi‘i leaders, such as Hassan al-Saffar, criticized the ruling family’s intervention in Bahrain but sought to emphasize their loyalty to the Saudi regime.[11] Al-Nimr, on the other hand, was much less conciliatory in his approach.[12] The Saudi government met the protests with force, inflaming anti-government fervor among many Shi‘i activists. Al-Nimr was shot, wounded, and arrested; the image of the bloodied cleric quickly became a symbol for Shi‘i protesters. He was later sentenced to death on political charges and is currently awaiting execution.

While acting to suppress the protests, the government also initiated some efforts to appease the Eastern Province Shi‘a. The late King Abdullah replaced the much-disliked governor of the province, Mohammed bin Fahd, with Saud bin Nayef, although many among the local Shi‘i population doubted that the personnel substitution would result in any real change. Skeptical Shi‘i activists argue that policies in relation to the Eastern Province Shi‘a are controlled from Riyadh and by the Interior Ministry rather than any local official.[13]

The Rise of ISIS and Sectarian Violence

The Syrian civil war that followed the Arab Spring was another flashpoint for sectarianism in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government aligned itself against the Assad regime. As it became evident that Iran’s Quds force and Hezbollah were actively assisting the Assad forces, anti-Shi‘i rhetoric in Saudi Arabia intensified.

The latest example of sectarian conflict in Saudi Arabia was the suicide attack on a Shi‘i mosque in Qatif in May 2015, which killed at least 20 people and injured more than 80. ISIS claimed responsibility.[14] A week later, a second suicide bombing took place at a Shi‘i mosque in Dammam, resulting in four fatalities.[15] The Saudi government quickly condemned the attack and vowed to pursue and punish the perpetrators. The government is no doubt genuine in its desire to prevent sectarian violence within the kingdom, but less certain is its desire or ability to contain the verbal sectarianism of the Sunni clerics or take major steps toward ending discrimination.

More importantly, the Saudi government is becoming increasingly aware of the domestic threat of ISIS and other Sunni extremists. The rise of ISIS and the establishment of an ISIS branch on Saudi soil horrify both the ruling family and the religious establishment. Saudi clerics condemn ISIS and have little to no sympathy for the group.[16] While Saudi clerics are unequivocal in their opposition to the Assad regime in Syria, many are more inclined to support Jabhat al-Nusra among the various groups and factions on the anti-Assad side.

The Future of the Saudi Shi‘a

The present circumstances are unlikely to result in meaningful change for the Saudi Shi‘a, for two reasons. First, it is difficult to undo the damage of decades of anti-Shi‘i discourse by the Saudi clerical establishment. The clerics’ present disdain for ISIS is no more than a temporary alignment of their interests with those of the Saudi Shi‘a. The clerics are generally intolerant of Shi‘ism and seem unlikely to tone down their rhetoric, especially while conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen are unfolding. Even when the Saudi clerics are criticizing foreign Shi‘i actors, such as Iran, they do so in such broad terms that the Saudi Shi‘a are tainted by association.

Second, although King Salman will continue to try to moderate and accommodate some Shi‘i needs, it is questionable whether he is able or willing to do more than King Abdullah already had. While it is too early in King Salman’s rule to make any firm predictions, he is generally seen as hawkish and likely to place security interests ahead of reform. Shi‘i demands for major change are unlikely to be given priority if they are seen as threatening to the Saudi state in this critical time. The king still also needs the cooperation of the religious establishment, which will adamantly oppose any thoroughgoing accommodation of Shi‘ism as a recognized religion within the kingdom.

As sectarian conflict rages throughout the Middle East, the Saudi government has to be careful that ISIS or other external radical Shi‘i groups not take advantage of the kingdom’s sectarian fault lines. The best hedge against that is building the elements of internal accommodation and solidarity.

[1] Toby Matthiesen, The Other Saudis: Shiism, Dissent and Sectarianism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 68-71.

[2] Leo Kwarten, Why the Saudi Shiites Wont Rise Up Easily, A Conflicts Forum Monograph, June 2009, 6-7,

[3] International Crisis Group, “The Shiite Question in Saudi Arabia,” Middle East Report 45 (September 2005).

[4] Toby Matthiesen, The Other Saudis: Shiism, Dissent and Sectarianism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 179.

[5] Matthiesen, The Other Saudis, 201.

[6] See Toby Jones, “Saudi Arabia versus the Arab Spring,” Raritan: A Quarterly Review 31, 2 (Fall 2011): 56.

[7] Frederick Wehrey, Sectarian Politics in the Gulf (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 113.

[8] Shaykh Safar al-Hawali, Al Aqalliyyah Hina Tatahakkam fi-l-Akthariyyah: Radd Safar al-Hawali ‘ala Matalib al-Rafidah (Nimr al-Nimr),; Shaykh Nimr al-Nimr, Nas Wathiqah al-Matalib al-Shi‘a allato Qaddamaha Nimr al-Nimr li Naib Amir al-Mintaqah al-Sharqiyyah,

[9] “Saudi Arabia Says Won’t Tolerate Protests,” Reuters, March 5, 2011,

[10] “Saudi Troops Enter Bahrain to Help Put Down Unrest,” New York Times, March 14, 2011,

[11] “Saudi Shiites Call for Withdrawal and Shiite Religious Leaders Incriminate Massacres in Bahrain,” Saudi Shia, March 21, 2011,  

[12] See “Shaykh Nimr al-Nimr, Saudi Ayatollah Nimr al-Nimr Dares Saudi Regime to Attack Iran and Declares: We are Loyal to Allah, Not to Saudi Arabia or Its Royal Family,” MEMRI, June 1, 2015,

[13] Frederick Wehrey, Sectarian Politics in the Gulf (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 155.

[14] “Bloodshed in the Kingdom,” The Economist, May 22, 2015,

[15] Ian Black, “Second Saudi Arabia Suicide Bombing Fuels Isis Campaign Fears,” The Guardian, May 29, 2015,

[16] See Louisa Loveluck for Grand Mufti Abdel-Aziz al-Sheikh’s remarks in reaction to the Qatif mosque attack, quoted in “Several Killed after Suicide Bomber Strikes Saudi Mosque,” The Telegraph, May 22, 2015,