We cannot speak about Shiites in Saudi Arabia without mentioning the systematic sectarian discrimination which adheres to this sect since more than a century. This discrimination had affected and still affecting the lives of two million Shiites who suffer from extreme polices by excluding them from the nation through eliminating them from many political and governmental middle and senior positions. Even more, the space for their religious freedom was extremely violated; their religious books are banned from entry to Saudi Arabia, establishing an independent Shiite judiciary as well as religious schools is prevented, building Shiite mosques outside Qatif and AlAhssa is prohibited, and even Madinah which is inhabited by more than seventy-thousand Shiite citizens since Islam’s emergence still lacks for mosques and community halls for performing religious rituals. Due to the severe prevention and radical restraint by authorities in regards of building their worship places, Shiite citizens in different regions are using their residences for performing their rituals.
Furthermore, Shiites’ are contributing with their production in diverse literary and intellectual fields in the Saudi culture, but this did not help in the Ministry of Culture and Information which is still refusing to give permissions to intellectual magazines that are headed by Shiite citizens like “AlKalema” which is a quarterly intellectual magazine discuses Islamic though issues, contemporary issues and regeneration. Till now, this magazine published seventy-five issues, and, for many years, its editors have been trying to get permission for it from authorities who are still refusing. This discriminative situation is, also, facing other magazines like “AlWaha” which is a quarterly magazine specialized in heritage, culture and literature in the Gulf, and “AlFaqaha” magazine which is specialized in jurisprudential studies and researches.
In the light of this radical situation against Shiite writers, the rareness of Shiite participations is noted in the audio and printed media. Although Saudi Arabia publishes fourteen daily newspapers, but the Shiite writers in them are no more than twenty-five.
Marginalizing the Shiite minority in different political, cultural, economic and social fields- although they represent a huge percentage in the Saudi Eastern Province- had deprived them from the fortune of the land they dwell which is considered the most oil-rich region in Saudi Arabia and in the world as well.
In 1913, Qatif and AlAhssa became part of the Third Saudi State voluntarily, and, since then, Shiites made hundreds of visits to the Saudi kings from King AbdulAziz up to King Abdullah. Through these visits, they presented thousands of petitions about their complaints as a Shiite minority that suffers from the absence of equality.
Although the Saudi decision-makers were pleased by such approach of informing away from bringing them to the public, that did not positively reflect on Shiites’ life aspects. Issues which Shiites are suffering from are still getting more complicated besides other more complicated issues like accusing Shiites with allegiance to Iran, hatred incitement against Shiites which prevailed by radical Salafis. This increases the sectarian tension through classifying people according to their sects not citizenship; especially with the absence of the uniting identity and the rooting of sub identities in the Saudi society without the Saudi government having an effective role in making drastic solutions for the essential problems and tension factors that affect the political stability. This is because the government lives a state of political deadlock in addressing different political issues such as the issue of sectarian discrimination against Shiites.
The Shiite Intifada
In 1979, thousands of Shiites went out in peaceful demonstrations rejecting sectarian discrimination and demanding justice and equality for all citizens. All of Qatif’s towns and cities were involved in these demonstrations and protests which were confronted by the national guards leading to detaining hundreds, injuring dozens and killing more than fifteen people.
The Shiite Dissent Abroad
As a result to what had happened to the Shiite citizens, the first Shiite dissent was formed abroad, and its prominent leaderships were Sheikh Hasan AlSaffar who is a well-known Shiite scholar, Dr. Hamza AlHassan, Dr. Tawfiq AlSaif, Dr. Fuad AlIbrahim, Dr. Sadiq AlJubran and Eng. Jafar AlShayeb.
The Shiite dissent had an effective role; it had offices in Iran, Syria, United Kingdom and in the United States. It exercised a persistent political action to expose the violations against Shiites in particular, and, at the same time, it referred to the flaw in the political system. In his book “Inside the Kingdom”, Robert Lacey mentions that “By the summer of 1990, Sheikh Hassan was heading the most effective opposition the House of Saud had faced to that date”.
Moreover, the Shiite Dissent played an effective role in the human rights field; whoever refers to the documents by human rights organizations in the eighties and the nineties would find that they had indicated the oppression that was practiced against Saudi Shiites. Robert Lacey, in his previously mentioned book, says that, in 1990, Prince Salman bin AbdulAziz- the Governor of Riyadh- made a visit to the United States to attend a government propaganda exhibition, “Saudi Arabia between Yesterday and Today”, and Saudi demonstrators were there shouting with “Salman! Salman! Where are our human rights?. This led to an adverse effect which is contrary to what was planned by the organizers of the exhibition which had cost multi million dollars.
Despite the power of the Shiite Dissent, it had supported the Saudi government by an honorable attitude. In September 1990, when the second Gulf war broke out and Saddam Husain invaded Kuwait, Saudi Arabia utilized all of its political, military, financial and geographical potentials for supporting Kuwait and used the coalition forces for liberating Kuwait. At then, Saddam tried to be close to the Shiite Dissent to support him in his attacks at Saudi Arabia by tempting them with many things; however, the dissent stand was firm. They did not only not cooperate with Saddam Husain, they also inactivated their political and media action because Saudi Arabia was in a middle of a war and that requires having all citizens standing shoulder to shoulder which cannot be achieved without inactivating the disputes in order to make the nation overcome the crisis. Moreover, the dissent had closed its offices in Iran to maintain the independency.
The dissent’s stand delivered a positive message to the Saudi government. It was “the dissent has a high level of political and ethical sensibility” which was proved to them by the call of the Dissent’s leader; Sheikh Hasan AlSaffar, to the Shiite citizens urging them to join the Saudi army to protect the nation from any external risks.
The Saudi government had positively dealt with this honorable attitude after the end of the Gulf war. It began to strengthen the relations with the dissent, and had confidential negotiations with it ending with conciliation in 1993. At then, the Dissent dismantled all of its regulatory frameworks, closed its offices abroad, and all of the dissents returned to Saudi Arabia with a promise of not being subjected to security prosecutions. In return, the government has to solve the issue of sectarian discrimination against Shiite citizens by recognizing the Shi’ism as a fifth Islamic doctrine, permit the existence of Shiite, religious newspapers and magazines, allowing the entry of Shiite books to the state and establishment of religious schools as well as opening universities, enabling Shiites in high level positions in political and military institutions, and urbanizing and taking care of public utilities to Shiite regions.
Twenty years after the conciliation, Shiite citizens and leaderships believe that those promises are still not achieved and they did not turn to a tangible reality. This is what was sensed by some Shiite politicians in earlier time leading them to turning back to the opposition action abroad like Dr. Hamza AlHassan and Dr. Fuad AlIbrahim. On the other hand, other politicians, like Sheikh Hasan AlSaffar, Dr. Tawfiq AlSaif and Eng. Jafar AlShayeb, stock by making reform from inside through enforcing the local social powers, strengthening the relations with other national components and promoting a constructive relationship with authorities.
In this situation of political deadlock, Shiite citizens made two major initiatives. The first one; “Partners in One Nation”, was in 2003 and was presented to the Saudi Crown Prince, at then, Abdullah bin AbdulAziz. With its sophisticated language, it included all of the Shiites’ demands that primarily aim to achieving and enforcing the principle of citizenship between all citizens.
The second initiative was in 2008, and entitled “The Project of Shiite Integration in the Political and National Framework: A Program of Action for Addressing Sectarian Discrimination”. This project was presented to the Crown Prince, at then, Sultan bin AbdulAziz, and it included two equal necessities:
1. Completely ending the issue of discrimination and marginalization against Shiites based on sectarian reasons, and obtaining an equal treatment based on citizenship.
2. Completely ending the state’s concern that causes sectarian division which might lead the Shiite sect to be in opposition to the state, and ending the state’s doubts in the relationship between Shiites and their religious authorities in particular and Shiite societies abroad in general.
Both initiatives did not receive any response from the Saudi government’s officials, and the relationship between Shiites and the state remained complicated and tense. Although what is apparent looks like it is the opposite of what was mentioned due the participation of Shiite citizens in the national dialogue to which King Abdulallah bin AbdulAziz had called all different religious and intellectual groups in 2003, the national dialogue recommendations remained a dead letter and that again disappointed Sunni and Shiite reformists as well.
Moreover, many initiatives since the beginning of Qatif’s protests in February 2011 were presented to the governor of Eastern Province; Prince Mohammad bin Fahd, aiming to alleviate the public’s tension. One of them was the youth initiative which was made by a group of Saudi youth in March 30, 2011, and it included three matters; human rights, national rights and religious rights. Unfortunately, it remained waiting for a political resolution to be turned into a practical reality.
Besides the existence of Shiite initiatives concerned in Shiite issues, Shiite effectively participated in reformative and national action along with various Saudi religious and intellectual groups.
Citizenship Is the Way Out of the Crisis
The Shiite issue is one of the issues that cause tension between citizens in Saudi Arabia without having any initiatives made by the Saudi government for achieving real solutions. In addition, the postponement of the political resolution led to the emergence of protests in the east of Saudi Arabia- influenced by the Arab Spring- for demanding an end for the sectarian discrimination. These protests resulted in severely complicating the relations between the Saudi government and Shiite citizens especially with the government’s silence towards the extremists who continuously offend Shiites without being deterred by the government. This negatively affects the nation’s stability on the middle and long term unless the government makes an urgent step for achieving equality between citizens and rule of law in order to reach a form of human development and ending with all citizens enjoying their freedoms, social justice and human rights.