Saudi Shiite protesters hold portraits of prisoners during a demonstration in Qatif in 2011. They have raised no public opposition to the Yemen fight but fear that the mood is hardening against them. (Associated Press)

— Rights activist Waleed Sulais keeps close watch on the two-week-old Saudi-led offensive in neighboring Yemen. He is also following what he calls a war within the war.

This one is waged digitally in Saudi Arabia, as hard-line Sunnis sling mud at Shiite Muslims who are seen as sympathetic to the Shiite insurgents in Yemen. Saudi Arabia alleges the rebels are backed by Iran, its rival.

In a country where social media is the main pipeline for public debate, the smears signify more than just an angry cyber-sideshow in the latest Middle East conflict. They have alarmed Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority, which fears harsher crackdowns and pressure from the kingdom’s Sunni authorities as the Yemen fighting drags on.

“I support the war. Maybe all Saudi Shiites support it. And we feel we must protect Saudi Arabia from enemies,” Sulais said. “The problem is that many Saudis also see us as an enemy.”

The past few years have been particularly tense in Saudi Arabia’s Shiite enclave of Qatif and the surrounding oil-rich eastern region on the Persian Gulf. Since 2011, there have been periodic street clashes between Shiite demonstrators and security forces and sweeps by riot police.

Qatif, Saudi Arabia.

“The war has only made it worse,” said Sulais, who monitors the tensions and sends updates to a network of social media followers.

Saudi leaders see themselves as the guardians of Sunni interests in the region. But they have downplayed the Yemen fighting as a sectarian struggle in an effort to avoid fissures in the Arab coalition fighting there and rifts at home with the Shiite minority. Instead, the Saudi line is framed in geopolitical terms: The kingdom says it wants to restore Yemen’s president, who was driven from power by the rebels, and push back militias perceived as allied with Shiite power Iran, seen as the gulf states’ main regional foe.

Long after the current Yemen crisis shakes out, Saudi rulers will still be tested by their sensitive dealings with the country’s Shiites, who complain of systematic discrimination and increasingly tight scrutiny by officials. The tensions have sporadically boiled over in protests and violence since the Arab Spring-inspired uprisings around the region more than four years ago.

On Sunday, a security officer was killed in a raid on suspected government opponents in the eastern town of Awamiyah, just outside Qatif. Saudi Arabia’s interior ministry gave few details but said at least four Saudis were detained and weapons were seized.

Any deepening of suspicions about Shiites among the country’s informal opinion-shapers — including uncompromising Sunni clerics and other groups — could increase pressure on King Salman to have a heavier hand with future Shiite unrest.

A social media offensive

The war, some analysts say, has stirred a renewed sense of national identity rooted in the kingdom’s strict brand of Islam. Nearly every top Sunni cleric in Saudi Arabia has described the military intervention in Yemen as a patriotic duty.

“Hearing anti-Shiite sentiment in Saudi Arabia is nothing new. What may be different now is a reflection of this new Saudi nationalism that is being projected,” said Toby Matthiesen, a research fellow at the University of Cambridge and author of a book on Shiites in Saudi Arabia. “It’s certainly not going to make things easier for the Shiites.”

For the moment, the smears have been confined to social media, with most appearing on Twitter, the forum of choice in Saudi Arabia. The kingdom has 2.4 million active Twitter users — close to 10 percent of the population — who account for about 40 percent of all Twitter accounts in the Arab world, according to the Arab Social Media Report, a Dubai-based research group.

Recent posts have insulted Shiites as “rawafidh,” or Islamic rejectionists. “The rawafidh is a downtrodden nation,” said a message from a well-known extremist group known as the Saudi Society. “It’s not an acceptable religion.”

Some tweets even praise Iraq’s late dictator Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, for his repression of Shiites. A hard-line cleric, Abdulaziz Toufayfe, mocked the Shiite tradition of visiting family burial sites. “People of idols, worshippers of graves,” he wrote in a message.

It was retweeted more than 12,000 times.

The nuances have mattered little. Most of Yemen’s Shiites are Zaydis, who follow beliefs that at times are at odds with the Shiite traditions dominant in Iran, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. There also are few historical or cultural links between Yemen’s Zaydis and Saudi Shiites, whom U.S. diplomats say account for an estimated 12 percent of this country’s population.

The shrill social media content has been balanced by comments by other Saudi Sunnis coming to the defense of their Shiite countrymen on social media and by calls for national unity by commentators in state-run media. Still, some Saudis increasingly blur the line between the country’s Shiites and Iran.

“We are trying to fight our own war here against hate speech,” Sulais said. “I worry about the future and whether this war will legitimize a tougher line against Shiites in Saudi Arabia.”

Many Saudi Shiites were outraged by a death sentence issued in November at the end of a closed trial for one of Qatif’s most prominent cleric-activists, Nimr al-Nimr, who was accused of links to “foreign meddling.” That’s a clear reference to Iran or the Shiite group it backs in Lebanon, Hezbollah.

International rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, say at least 20 people have been killed and more than 300 detained in and around Qatif since the most recent spate of unrest began in February 2011. In attempts at outreach, Saudi leaders have included Shiite leaders as part of a “national dialogue.”

But authorities have taken few steps to rein in venomous rhetoric on social media or follow through with pledges to close television channels such as Wesal, which often broadcasts programs vilifying Shiites. Meanwhile, security in Qatif has been boosted with more checkpoints and more frequent patrols by police vehicles outfitted with extra armor.

Last November, gunmen believed linked to the Islamic State opened fire on a Shiite religious procession, killing at least eight people and touching off widespread arrests and a shootout with suspects that left two police officers dead.

Quiet dissent

If there are any conflicted feelings about the Yemen fight, they are not on public display in Qatif, about 350 miles northeast of Riyadh.

There is no antiwar graffiti. A general peace rally was scheduled for last week. It was called off quietly when authorities refused permission.

And few dare to respond to the anti-Shiite blasts on Twitter. They worry they could be arrested — like dozens of other activists and dissidents in Saudi Arabia and across the gulf who have been jailed for social media posts deemed insulting to rulers or against the state.

The only overt sign of Shiite identity in Qatif is a scattering of flags extolling their revered 7th-century martyr, Imam Hussein.

“Some like me say, ‘We don’t like war, but since our country is part of that war, we are with the country, whether it is just or unjust,’ ’’ said Tawfiq Alsaif, a leading Shiite academic and writer in Qatif. “The government has displayed the war as purely political, but the religious feelings in the media have made it bad for us.”

Last week, Alsaif was invited to appear on a televised panel with other Islamic religious scholars, including clerics of Saudi Arabia’s mainstream Wahhabi branch.

Alsaif raised questions during the broadcast about Saudi national identity.

“The answer was very insightful,” Alsaif said. “I was told by the [Wahhabi] cleric, ‘To be a citizen you have to be a Muslim, and Muslim means our way of Islam.’ In other words, you are with us or against us.”

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