Saudi Arabia always has been a tough neighborhood for religious minorities. This has been especially true for the Kingdom’s Shi‘ites, the country’s largest minority, with almost two million of them living in the oil-rich Eastern Province. From early in the 20th century, Shi‘ites have been the targets of scorn and opprobrium, much of it with the official blessing of the Saudi rulers. The origins of anti-Shi‘ite enmity are hardly a mystery. The Kingdom’s official religious orthodoxy, an interpretation of Islam often called Wahhabism, was based in large measure on hostility toward Shi‘ism and its adherents. Confronted with contempt and forced to endure harsh treatment, Shi‘ites have suffered considerable neglect as second-class citizens in almost 100 years of Saudi rule. Although most live in close proximity to the source of Saudi Arabia’s wealth, Shi‘ites have largely never benefited from the windfall brought by oil, struggling in tough social and environmental conditions — left behind in an era of prosperity.
While little has changed with regard to the material, social, and economic status of Shi‘ites over time, their political relations have transformed dramatically in the last 30 years. The year 1979 marked the pivotal turning point, the moment when Saudi Arabia’s Shi‘ites began to fight back against oppression and forever redefined their relationship with the ruling family. And for better and worse, the legacy of 1979 continues to shape the relationship between the Saudis and the Shi‘ites today.
In November 1979 thousands of dissidents stormed the streets of the Eastern Province in an uprising that shocked the Kingdom and its rulers. Frustrated by their status as second-class citizens, activists directed their ire at the government, unleashing a violent wave of unrest. Saudi security forces used overwhelming force to crush the rebellion. The uprising proved politically transformative. From 1913, when the Al Saud conquered what would become the Eastern Province and incorporated it into their domain, to the late 1970s, most Shi‘ites embraced and had practiced a form of political quietism. Community leaders had pushed for social and political justice, but had striven to avoid provoking a confrontation with Saudi authorities or their most zealous supporters. By the late 1970s, a new generation of political aspirants, what would become the vanguard of a new leadership, embraced a more radical approach to community affairs, using religion as a pretext for revolutionary activism. Their calls for revolution culminated in the 1979 uprising.
The embrace of violence, strident anti-Saudi sentiment, and devotion to revolution defined the Shi‘ite approach to politics during the 1980s. Many of those who took to the streets in 1979 were either killed or detained. The rest fled into exile, seeking political shelter in places like Damascus, London, and Washington, DC. From their perches abroad, the most committed activists continued to champion revolution, publishing a monthly journal and working to bring to light human rights and other abuses in the Kingdom.
For their part, Saudi Arabia’s rulers viewed the upsurge in activism and the radicalization of the community as the direct result of Iran’s Islamic Revolution. They considered the 1979 uprising not only as an important bellwether of politics at home, but also an indication of Iran’s mounting regional power. The uprising, then, seemed to be as much a geopolitical problem as a local political one. During the 1980s the Kingdom dealt with Shi‘ite activism as it did Iran, with suspicion and a heavy hand.
After a decade in exile, however, the Shi‘ite community’s main leaders — Hassan al-Saffar and his closest lieutenants — began to soften their tone. By the end of the 1980s they renounced violence and pressed instead for democratic reform in Saudi Arabia and the protection of religious minorities. Key activists continued to publish a monthly newsletter and shed light on abuses in the Kingdom, but they ceased calls for violence. Their change in tone created a political opening. Attuned to the transformation that had taken place, Saudi leaders, who had grown increasingly embarrassed by efforts to unveil the Kingdom’s excesses, pursued rapprochement with al-Saffar and his supporters. In exchange for ending their publishing campaign, Saudi Arabia welcomed many of the one-time revolutionaries home and assured them that the Kingdom finally would address some of the community’s most pressing social, economic, and political concerns.
Not everyone was ameliorated by the gesture. A number of disaffected and still-angry residents of the Eastern Province refused any conciliation and continued to support violent resistance to Saudi power. Most of these belonged to Hizbullah in the Hijaz, a militant organization that many claim was responsible for a terrorist attack on an American military housing facility in the seaside village of al-Khobar in 1996 that killed 19 American military service personnel and wounded hundreds of others. While the attack raised alarms about the specter of a new round of militancy and the potential of Iranian involvement, the bombings revealed that most Shi‘ites had in fact abandoned revolutionary politics and would support efforts at bridge-building with the Saudi government.
From the mid-1990s to today, the dominant political trend in the Shi‘ite community has been one focused on reform and pluralism, although there are important indications that this may soon change. The former radicals have patiently and diligently worked toward improving living conditions in their home communities as well as toward carving out space for greater political participation. They remain committed to the principles of non-violence and reform. Their efforts have met with mixed results. Some Saudi leaders, most notably the current King, have responded favorably to Shi‘ite entreaties for relief and protection. Shi‘ites have been included in efforts to promote dialogue between Muslims since 2003. In 2005 Shi‘ites ran openly and won resounding victories in elections to the country’s Municipal Councils, the first time such elections had been held in four decades. Shi‘ites also have been afforded opportunities to expand religious observance, most notably by being allowed to publicly commemorate ‘Ashura, their most important religious ritual.
But while the Kingdom has moved to address some of the Shi‘ite community’s most serious concerns, these efforts have also proven to be tenuous, subject to various political pressures and easily reversed. Saudi rulers remain deeply suspicious of the community, the potential that they continue to harbor revolutionary goals, or that they are in fact a fifth column for Iran. The fallout from the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, including the rise of Shi‘ite power there and the re-emergence of Iran as a regional rival, has re-opened many of the old wounds. This has meant that the government has slowed or reversed many of its efforts to accommodate Shi‘ite religious, social, and cultural desires. Rather than supporting the community’s wish to observe its beliefs, in 2009 Saudi authorities have begun again to harass its largest minority, arresting dozens for practicing their faith.
Worse, the Saudi government also has encouraged or condoned anti-Shi‘ite radicalism inside the Kingdom. Anti-Shi‘ism escalated dramatically in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq and has not yet abated. In February 2009 hundreds of Shi‘ite worshippers in Medina were besieged by members of the Saudi religious and regular police. In the days and weeks following, Shi‘ite leaders began warning again of the potential for a new era of violent confrontation. Some of these voices were new. Others were familiar, such as a resurgent Saudi Hizbullah — an ominous indication that after decades of disappointing results the community might choose the path of radicalism once again.
For now an uneasy calm has settled over the Eastern Province. But 30 years after the last outbreak of widespread violence, the future of Saudi-Shi‘ite political relations remains far from certain.