On May 22, Saleh al-Qashami, a Saudi citizen, blew himself up in the Shiite Imam Ali mosque in the village of Qadeeh in the Qatif oasis, a predominantly Shiite area. It was the deadliest attack on Saudi Shiites ever, killing 21 people and severely wounding dozens of others. Moreover, the attack took place during Friday prayers, implying that the attacker did not consider the worshipers Muslims. While anti-Shiite voices across the region were quick to blame Iran or Hezbollah, the Islamic State quickly claimed that a “soldier of the caliphate” had carried out the May 22 attack.
The official statement was signed by Islamic State-Najd Province, implying that the Islamic State now has an official branch in Saudi Arabia’s central Najd Province. The group declared the start of a campaign to rid the Arabian Peninsula of “all the polytheists.” Within hours, the Islamic State-Najd Province also claimed the May 29 attack in Dammam, adding that it was another step in its campaign to “purify” Saudi Arabia from the rejectionists.
The bombings have raised a number of important questions regarding the ability of Saudi Arabia to protect its citizens, the reach of the Islamic State in Saudi Arabia, the future of Sunni-Shiite relations and the double-edged sword of state-sponsored anti-Shiism in the country.
These were the second and third attacks on Saudi Shiites claimed by the Islamic State. During the first, in November 2014, a Saudi gunman opened fire with an automatic weapon as worshippers were leaving a Shiite mourning house, or hussainiyya, in the al-Ahsa oasis, the other main area of Shiite population in the country. While the attacker and several dozen co-conspirators were quickly arrested and many across the country showed their sympathy and attended the funeral, there were few tangible changes. The advisory Shura Council debated a bill criminalizing sectarian hate speech in the months after the attack but no action was taken.
Although the late King Abdullah began cautiously reaching out to the Shiites when he took the throne in 2005, King Salman has made few such overtures since coming to power in January. Salman instead started a war in neighboring Yemen against the Houthi rebels and the forces aligned with former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh. At home, the new king has reached out to conservative forces from across the Sunni spectrum, including clerics who had been critical of Abdullah and Saudi foreign policy, in particular its anti-Muslim Brotherhood campaign.
At the start of the bombing campaign in Yemen, the most important Sunni clerics, such as Salman al-Awda, praised the new leadership and the war against the Houthis, with some going as far as calling the campaign a just, religious war. The war has been presented as an effort to counter Iran – the Saudis are thoroughly convinced that the Houthis are Iranian proxies – and by default counter Shiite movements, although the Zaydi Shiites in Yemen are different from Iran’s Twelver Shiites and many Zaydi religious practices and beliefs are close to the Sunnis.
The increased anti-Shiite rhetoric since the start of the war has had a negative impact on the Shiites in Saudi Arabia and sectarian relations. Not many Saudis have spoken out against the war, seemingly out of fear of persecution, criticism of the government can lead to several years in jail. However, many Saudis, in particular many Shiites and Southerners, have appeared to be against the war. For example, a planned anti-war demonstration in the eastern town of Awwamiyya was canceled after activists were allegedly told they would all be shot if they demonstrated. The impact of the war has been even worse in southern Saudi Arabia, particularly Najran Province, an area historically settled by Ismailis, who the Wahhabi clerics term “rejectionists” and who have also faced sectarian discrimination. Though the Ismailis are better integrated into state institutions, including the armed forces, the war on their doorsteps and the shelling of Najran from across the border coupled with the anti-Shiite rhetoric of the war, is likely unsettling.
The bombing in Qatif reignited the debate about the problem of the Shiites in Saudi Arabia and Saudi Arabia’s religious politics. Al-Ahsa, where the November 2014 attack took place, is a mixed Sunni and Shiite area, but Qatif and the surrounding villages are mainly Shiite with a long history of oppositional politics. Since February 2011, a protest movement inspired by the Arab uprisings and the protests in neighbouring Bahrain has challenged the notion that Saudi Arabia was exempt from the Arab uprisings. Initially focusing on the release of political prisoners, national democratic reforms and human rights, the protest movement faced increasing repression, leading parts of the movement to turn toward militancy. Saudi security forces, which also suffered casualties in frequent shootouts, shot more than 25, mainly young, Shiite men. The figurehead of the protest movement, the cleric Nimr al-Nimr, was arrested in the summer of 2012 and sentenced to death, a verdict that could be executed at any time.
The protest movement has slowed since 2014, mainly due to repression, activist fatigue and lack of support from other parts of the country and pro-government Shiite factions. However, the funeral for the victims of the May 22 attack turned into a massive rally with hundreds of thousands of participants. Official Saudi media gave full coverage to the funeral, emphasizing calls for an end to sectarian violence – seemingly in a bid to prevent the appropriation of the funeral by opposition media channels. Saudi newspapers reported the funeral on their front pages, stating that half a million had attended and reprinting King Salman’s statement that he was “heartbroken,” and his promises to hunt down those responsible.
At the same time, however, many Shiites, and particularly those close to the victims, feel betrayed and let down by the state and are fearful of more attacks. They are surprised that more was not done since the al-Ahsa attack to prevent similar bloodshed. Unlike al-Ahsa, Qatif and the surrounding areas have been full of checkpoints since 2011 to prevent the militarization of and hunt down those involved in the Shiite protest movement, known locally as al-hirak (the movement). Dammam, a city built during at the start of oil exploration in the mid-20th century, is a mainly Sunni city with a significant Shiite minority. Therefore, the Shia mosque in Dammam was even easier to reach than the mosque in Qatif. Sunni hard-liners had for decades demanded the closure of Shiite mosques in mixed Sunni-Shiite cities such as Dammam and Khobar. The state at times followed through and closed several Shiite mosques in Khobar over the last years.
The leader of Khat al-Imam, a pro-Iranian social movement that had been active in the Eastern Province since the 1980s, Abd al-Karim al-Hubayl, and other senior Saudi Shiite clerics have called for the establishment of popular protection committees to prevent future attacks. A newly established Twitter account is circulating pictures of men in orange vests from the committees stopping and checking cars and monitoring people at the entrances of mosques, as well as female patrols in the streets. The Shiite clerics argue that if the state could not protect the Shiites, they should take matters into their own hands. That these committees share a name – al-Hashd al-Shaabi – the militias recently established in Iraq to counter the Islamic State, was not lost on locals and outside observers. The committees’ actions constitute a direct threat to state’s monopoly of violence. Pro-Saudi Twitter accounts have been quick to denounce these committees as the beginning militarization of the Qatifis, using the hashtag “No to the Shiite Committees in Qatif,” replacing shaabi (popular) with shii (Shiite).
Fear among the Shiite population is understandable given the Islamic State – Najd Province’s declaration and the recent attacks. The Islamic State and similar organizations aim to cause a rise in Shiite militancy and increase distrust between the Shiites on the one hand and the state and the rest of Saudi society on the other hand. In many ways, the Shiites are a soft target for the Islamic State, easier to target than foreigners holed up in their fortified compounds, and less controversial amongst mainstream Saudi society than attacks on Sunni Saudi soldiers and policemen. The Islamic State can feed on decades of anti-Shiite incitement in Saudi schools, Islamic universities and the media. Indeed, many of the militants that join the uprisings in Syria and the insurgency in Iraq are driven by a desire to counter Iranian and Shiite influence, foreign policy goals that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states are also working towards.
Saudi Arabia may have to choose between using anti-Shiism as a political tool at home and abroad and the very real threat that extremists taking anti-Shiism too seriously will bring the fight back home – with unpredictable consequences for the stability of Saudi Arabia and the wider region. If the new Saudi king wanted, he could enact a number of laws to curb sectarianism and reaffirm that the Shiites are citizens of Saudi Arabia not just “other Saudis” or secondary citizens. He could, for example, issue a law criminalizing sectarian hate speech as neighboring Kuwait has done. There were calls to close the Saudi offices of one particularly inflammatory sectarian TV channel, Wesal, but it remained active. Several Saudi Twitter accounts, including of some clerics, seemed sympathetic to the Qudaih attacker or spread conspiracy theories of the event.
King Salman could also abolish judicial discrimination against Shiites (which currently require two Shiite witnesses to counter claims by one Sunni witness), strengthen Shiite status law courts and appoint a Shiite cleric to the Council of Senior Ulema, the highest religious body in the country. He could also appoint Shiite ministers (no Shiite has ever reached ministerial rank in the history of the country), ambassadors (there has been only one Shiite ambassador, and that was to Iran) or local governors in the Eastern Province. He could also revise the textbooks on tawhid, which all Saudi students including Shiites and Ismailis must study and which denounces Shiites as rejectionists. He could also release political prisoners, jailed for demanding political reform and human rights. He could also start recruiting Shiites into the Ministry of Interior, the army and the National Guard, institutions from which they are largely barred.
All of these measures might be unpopular with some Saudis, particularly anti-Shiite clerics; however, without implementing some changes the “problem” of the Shiites in Saudi Arabia will not be resolved. Surely these attacks could serve as good an opportunity as any to reverse some of the sectarian policies that have driven many young Saudis into jihad abroad and at home in the first place.
Toby Matthiesen is a research fellow in Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at Pembroke College, University of Cambridge. He is the author of “The Other Saudis: Shiism, Dissent and Sectarianism,” which outlines the history of political movements among the Shiites of Saudi Arabia and their relationship with the Saudi state.