Essay About Saudi Arabia
The Middle Eastern region is marred with a plethora of complexities. On one hand exists a regional hegemonic jostle between relatively strong actors – Saudi Arabia and Iran, specifically; this clash of regional powerhouses can be best understood as a proxy war infused by ideological sentiments and political leveraging with other neighboring states in the region. On the other hand, domestic relations within countries who find themselves in the crosshairs of this regional contestation, including Saudi Arabia and Iran themselves, are malleable in the context of sectarian division and state control. In this sense, events that take place on the regional stage, in this example Iran and Saudi Arabia’s apparent proxy war, have a rather direct impact on the relationship between state authority and sectarian division.
The case of Saudi Arabia epitomizes this relationship considering the resurgence of domestic sectarian struggles following the 1979 Iranian Revolution as well as more recently the 2011 Arab Spring, which spread throughout the region. However, the resurged sectarian struggle in Saudi Arabia is not merely a reflection of regional contestation between two regional actors, but instead it reflects a deep divide between a predominantly Sunni Saudi government and the often politically marginalized Shia communities living in distinct regions and provinces: Eastern Province, southern region, and Western Province.
The Saudi Arabian monarchical government exude authoritarian means with regard to this sectarian division, not to mention other societal dynamics. In this paper, the goal is to analyze the Saudi state’s authoritarian nature in the three aforementioned Shia communities. Furthermore, this paper will examine the overarching issue of regional hegemonic contestation and foreign intervention, to a lesser extent.
Most important in analyzing sectarian division in Saudi Arabia is to contextualize the analyzable, namely the political, social, and to a degree economic environment surrounding the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. First, the interconnection of religion and politics in Saudi Arabia cannot be overlooked. According to Medea Benjamin’s Kingdom of the Unjust, Wahhabism’s interconnectedness with politics proliferated its sustainability in the Kingdom’s culture. According to Benjamin, “Wahhabism became the strategy for the monarchy to justify its hold on power and project that power abroad” (pg.99). State sponsored schools elicited textbooks which were filled with diatribes toward Shia, Christian, and Jews.
Additionally, Wahhabi-sponsored television disseminated throughout Sunni-majority countries, outside the Kingdom’s borderlines. Furthermore, the Kingdom’s polity is formulated through non-secular means, in fact rather extreme fundamentalist means. According to Frederic Wehry (2013): “Under the kingdom’s 1992 Basic Law, Sunni Islam is enshrined as the source of authority for the state. The country’s highest religious body, the twenty-person Senior Ulema Council, issues religious edicts that affect nearly every aspect of social and political life in the kingdom. Although the council includes representatives of the Sunni Hanafi, Maliki, and Shafi schools, as well as Hanbalis, there are no Shia representatives.” (pg.4)
Other structural limitations, which we will come across in the paper, hinder Shia’ inclusion in society and exacerbates the sectarian divide. Secondly, Saudi Arabia’s partnership with the United States takes on multiple dimensions which includes, but certainly is not limited to economic transactions and military security in a contested region; this partnership began in 1943 and it fortified under the threat of international communism and other secular movements (Conge and Okruhlik, 2009, pg. 366).
Despite the shared interests between the two countries, the United States’ relationship with Israel proliferated a brewing dissent throughout neighboring Arab countries, hence creating a divide between Al-Saud (Saudi Arabia’s ruling family) and other Arab states. This served as an impetus to the third dimension of the political environment that impacts Saudi Arabia, Iran’s ambitions.
Popular conventional belief throughout the Kingdom engenders the notion of an ambitious Iran, whereby Iran’s “Arab Street” cultivates the “objective of spreading and deepening its popularity and influence with the repressed Arab populations of the Middle East” (Wehry and Guffey, 2009, pg. 11; Ellis, 2013, NP). This foreign policy goal which Iran has maintained “indirectly undercuts Sunni Arab countries,” most notably Saudi Arabia; other countries that are impacted are members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC hereinafter), Jordan and Morocco – to lesser degrees. Iran has long been an adversarial entity in the eyes of the Saudi state; the years preceding the 1979 Iranian Revolution, as mentioned above, saw a growing displeasure with Saudi Arabia’s relationship with “an imperial power said to sponsor Zionism, the United States” (Conge and Okruhlik, pg. 367).
The former nascent theocratic regime of Iran increased its rhetoric against Saudi Arabia implicitly by appearing more pious and moral compared to Al-Saud. Moreover, Iran’s newly revolutionized ideology was anti-monarchical as well as anti-imperial – further alienating Saudi Arabia. Saudi-Iranian relations took a metaphorical rollercoaster ride throughout Saddam’s reign in Iraq, considering Iraq once aided the Kingdom’s interest during the war with Iran, yet shortly thereafter became a threat during Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
To briefly characterize Saudi-Iranian relations in the 1990s, one can state that the Saudi state were opportunist, and more often than not utilize their robust revenue in order to curtail Iran’s ambitions; this pertains to “Riyadh’s massive investment in religious infrastructure and media” in the Central Asian country of Tajikistan, in response to Iran’s aspirational expansion toward this region (Wehry and Guffey, pg. 17). The 2006 Lebanon war, however, became a vast turning point in Saudi-Iranian relations, considering Tehran’s unprecedented military backing of Hezbollah in its war with Israel. This event influenced sectarian cleavages to once again flare in the Arabian Peninsula, simultaneously, Iran witnessed greater public opinion due to their unwavering support of Hezbollah.
Comparatively, the 1979 Iranian Revolution influenced Sunni conversions to Shia the same way the region encountered shortly after the conclusion of the 2006 Lebanon war. This echoes the earlier dynamic in the region, where external events have an impact on domestic socio-political dimensions in affected countries; in this case, it was to Riyadh’s expense. Due to the increasing conversions to Shia Islam as well as the growing discontent in the Eastern Province, Saudi Arabia’s Sunni clerics, Salafists, ramped up anti-Shia rhetoric which paved the way for not only discrimination, but as we will diagnose soon, political marginalization.
Hitherto the reader can identify key impediments of Shia inclusion in both the Kingdom’s polity as well as religious and social structure – the latter to be more identifiable in the paragraphs to come.
These impediments are tangential to regional socio-political transformations (i.e. Iran’s proximal ambitions) as well as the Arab culture that exist in Saudi Arabia. Notwithstanding political marginalization, Shia communities are blatantly isolated from the religious life in Saudi Arabia; this is evident during the observation of Muharram. Second to Ramadan, Muharram is the holiest month in the Islam religion, also the first ten days of this month lead up to the commemoration of Hussayn who was martyred in 680 (the tenth day is called Ashura). The religious symbols and events that take place during this time period are important to Shia “collective memories” – which regarding Saudi Shia, resemble oppression. However, “Shia have been largely banned from observing these rituals in public since 1913 in order not to arouse the anger of Wahhabi ‘ulama (guardians)’” (Matthiesen 2014, pg. 243).
Moreover, discrimination exist among the populous regarding these rituals to the expense of the Shia population attempting to observe them. In order to remedy this, Shia populations moved to areas where they were the majority. Sympathizers of the cause such as Hadi al-Mudarrisi (head of Bahraini’ Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain) and Sahib al- Sadiq (headmaster of the hawza in Kuwait) promoted Shia solidarity in the Eastern Province, which then led to the publicly-held Ashura processions in Awwamiyya in 1978 (pg. 245).
The Shia communities in Saudi Arabia continued the publicly held Muharram processions a year later, which a year prior seen the catalyst of the Iranian Revolution spur from Muharram processions protest. Saudi Shia continued to protest until they were ultimately allowed to practice their religion publicly without fear of discrimination and state repression. However, the Kingdom’s response can be characterized as apathetic. The Kingdom’s techno-authoritative measures were deployed, which echoes Toby Jones’ Saudi Arabia in Transition: Insights on Social, Political, and Economic change, by announcing “an electricity project, the building of new streets and schools, a new hospital, and projects for additional street lighting, communications, and sewage, and provided loans through the Real Estate Development Fund” (Matthiesen, pg. 255).
These promises alongside the “permission to hold limited Ashura processions” were announced days before Muharram, however, on the day of reverence large-scale deployment of security forces and harsh repression were sent by the Kingdom to subdue the Shia minority. This interaction between state and marginalized society can be best understood as the efforts of an authoritative government’s utilization of their robust capacity to employ a sense of dependence from the populous onto the regime, in hopes to placate the populous yet in actuality rendering the marginalized populous not only more discontented but vulnerable to adversarial state actors’ persuasion.
Regarding the political atmosphere in Saudi Arabia, Shia are equally as likely to be marginalized from the state as they are religiously isolated. There are levels of abandonment felt by the Shia minority in the Eastern Province; first, as noted earlier, the extreme nature of Wahhabism is felt throughout society – specifically felt throughout the education apparatus. Textbooks demonize the Shia population, while also inciting violence toward the community. Second, the judicial system is unfavorable toward Shia; the judicial system is governed at the national level by the Sunni Hanbali School of jurisprudence (Wehrey, pg. 5). Typical checks and balances of the judicial system in the Kingdom are vested by the dominant sect, in this case, Sunni – Sunni courts have a veto power over Shia rulings.
High bureaucratic positions such as the Ministry of Interior, the National Guard, and the Ministry of Defense are limited to only Sunni. Beside traffic conductors, the security apparatus in the Eastern Province are entirely Sunni; the divide here can be compared to American’ police force in black or other non-white communities, where there is a dividing line and “estrangement” between the ‘protected’ and the ‘protector.’ Moreover, the Salafist enjoy relative political immunity from the governing body considering the interwoven relationship it has with the governing body. Frederic Wehrey (2013) compares the anti-Shia, anti-Persian rhetoric seen today to the rhetoric seen following the 1979 revolution.
Furthermore, Wehrey states the fact that the Saudi state weaponizes sectarian divides – derived from protest in Eastern Province- to deflect criticism towards the regime as well as prevent cross-sectarian cooperation (pg. 6). The latter, cross-sectarian cooperation, is an interesting feature in Wehrey’s analysis considering the use of sectarianization to broaden and protect the state’s interest. Moreover, it exposes the fact that cross-sectarian lines can be breached if the state lowers its deployment of punitive security measures. Saudi Shia population and their rapid social movements do not merely engender sectarian struggles, but instead it promotes the “building [of] civil society and more participatory structures of governance in the kingdom” (pg.8). These claims and decrees are merely vocal points from the Shia populous and despite the rapid mobilization, the Kingdom does not reciprocate properly.
The Saudi polity has two main outlets for influence: Al-Saud (ruling family), and Sunni Wahhabi clerics. These two groups primarily determine the scope and decision-making of the regime, marking a key characteristic of a centralized state. The Day of Rage, which culminated from the sweeping 2011 Arab Springs, were perpetuated on social media network Facebook from Saudis abroad and within the Kingdom in efforts to mobilize the Shia in the Eastern Province. However, “in an effort to preempt even the remotest possibility of public dissent, the Saudi leadership’s initial impulse was to threaten violence, imprisonment, and heavy fines for would-be protesters” (Jones 2013, pg. 92).
Saudi Shia in the Eastern Province could not mobilize effectively due to the multitude of security personnel sent by the state; demonstrators either disappeared, or faced less but known consequences such as violence and imprisonment – even the Sunni majority did not want to test Riyadh (Jones, pg. 93-94). In fact, the sudden reaction from the state proliferated a sense of division between Shia and Sunni Muslims in the country due to the low mobilizing number that appeared; furthermore, the low protests’ turnout within the Kingdom created a sense of political contentment from the populous toward Riyadh, at least this is what the media spun (Wehrey 2013, pg. 12).
The state’s hard and soft power coupled to become an overwhelming package, rendering the suffering social classes placated. Financial reparations, to use that word fittingly, rounded out to be $130 billion, highlighting again the economic leverage the Saudi state utilizes in hopes to ameliorate financial struggles. According to Toby Jones (2013), “They possessed limited political rights and no opportunity to participate in political decision making, but their wants and needs would be provided for” (pg. 94). Additionally, the state had an all-out media campaign to delegitimize potential dissent movements throughout marginalized communities. Characterizing the media onslaught by Riyadh, Wehrey elucidates:
“It emphasized the destructive nature of the protests, delegitimize them on the basis of Islamic law, and, importantly, portrayed them as serving the parochial interests of the Shia. A range of institutions conveyed these messages, using both traditional and social media, including the Ministry of Interior, the Senior Ulema Council, conservative and reformist newspapers, and Facebook pages that emphasized solidarity with the regime” (pg. 13)
Riyadh uses all types of controlling mechanisms in efforts to thwart any popular protests within the Kingdom’s boundaries. Their usage of their robust revenue to promise economic alleviation, manipulation of state media, and hitherto clerical manipulation efforts culminated in depriving Shia communities of their fundamental democratizing right. Shi’a communities in Saudi Kingdom have not found their footing compared to the Sunni majority. Riyadh’s efforts to pacify the Shi’a population with economic manipulation has not only failed at reaching local level Shi’a communities but it has failed to reach the impressionable youth movement.
To briefly conclude on the Eastern Province of Arabia, it is important to note the demographics; the Eastern Province has the highest percentage of Shi’a in the state, in such if changes would occur throughout the country, one could say it would happen in this province. Finally, what Riyadh has done not only is the epitome of state authoritarianism but it is the example most neighboring GCC members continue to do in efforts to thwart dissent and potential Iranian influence.
Irrespective of the relative failure of Riyadh’s economic leverage, one must identify pathological state structure coupled with an extreme Islamic doctrine and its effect on Shi’a minorities in the country. The next region that will be discussed, however, is that of the “Holy Lands” (Medina and Mecca) – in other words, Western Province. Given the incredible importance Medina and Mecca is in accordance with Islamic values, it is imperative to understand the power politics that was shaped by sectarian division in the area.
As stated above, the Eastern Province has the highest Shi’a population in the country, therefore, the Western Province will not be as dense. Regardless, Shi’a Muslims in the holy lands did not face different circumstances than their brethren in the East, in fact, quite the opposite. From the onset of Wahhabi presence in Medina in 1803, the newcomers forced the destruction of Shi’a burial grounds. In fact, this occurred again about 123 years later when Saudi occupied Medina in 1924 and destroyed the al-Baqi burial grounds. The native inhabitants of Medina, the Nakhawila, were not permitted to bury at the al-Baqi, let alone pray there (Ende 1997, pg. 318-320).
There is evidence that purportedly indicates the putrid living conditions the Nakhawila (Shi’a minority group) had to endure. The common consensus at the time was predicated on the belief that the Nakhawila were “polluting” public places, therefore could not step inside the walls of many holy mosques. Considering the rather minimal population of the ancient Shi’a in Medina, it was rather easy for the occupying force to build around the populous. Urbanization destroyed farmland, which displaced both Sunni and Shi’a, and Shi’a were forced to assimilate into school programs in the Western Province (Ende, pg. 324-326).
The general discourse during the 1930s circulated around discriminatory practices felt by the Shi’a population from the Sunni majority regarding electoral rights – essentially stripping the Nakhawila’s right to vote (pg. 328). Moreover, the religious teachings in Medina from the majority repudiated Shi’a ideology, epitomizing the prejudice displayed in society. The Western Province, albeit lacking contemporary authoritative measures from the state, has still been plagued with the same primordial attitudes and discriminatory practices that impact the majority of the Shi’a minority.
The western region has been used for political and religious statements either against the state from Sunni-led militants, or regional rivalries; the latter explains the Iranian-Saudi relationship and the culmination of violence in 1987, in which 450 Iranian pilgrims were killed by Saudi security forces. More recently, despite the precarious conundrum that existed in the 1980s, Mecca has also emerged as a venue for dialogue and symbolic rapprochement (Wehrey and Guffey 2009, pg. 36-39).
It is difficult to discuss sectarian conflict in Saudi Arabia, without discussing Yemen. The southern region of Saudi Arabia borders Yemen. Yemen has been dealing with a severe civil war, which has been exacerbated by the Saudi state. The Houthis, a Shi’a group in Northern Yemen, have decried political representation under the rule of the Yemeni government. Saudi Arabia has proliferated the spread of Wahhabism throughout the country, spurring the sectarian divide that exists in Yemen.
Najran is a fertile valley on the border with Yemen, and came under Saudi rule in 1934. It is the spiritual seat of the Sulaimani Ismailis, a branch of Shiism numbering several hundred thousand adherents (Human Rights Watch 2008). After a member of the al-Saud family - Mishaal bin Saud Al Saud - became leader of the territory, he became a quintessential role model for the al-Saud family regarding the treatment of the Sulaimani Ismailis. Similar to their Shi’a brethren in the Eastern Province, Ismailis face rough and disabling pathologies: lack of economic opportunities, lack of political representation or bureaucratic positions, and unequal justice in the judicial system.
Political marginalization is a mere factor for their discontent, instead it is the increasingly apathetic nature the political system employs when handling the Ismailis’ religious affairs – by closing down Shi’a mosque on holy days. This is reflective of the typical abhorred treatment Saudi state deploys in handling their Shi’a minority. Moreover, a confrontation in front of a Holiday inn in April, 2000 was the boiling point of the Shi’a minority towards not only the governorate political system but the central government as a whole (Human Rights Watch 2008). The majority of Shia groups in the Arabian Peninsula has been marginalized from political decision making, societal structure and their own religious liberties. This is just a reflection of the repressive state that Saudi Arabia is, concerning religious liberties and to a degree civil liberties.
The anxiety that flows through the blood of the Kingdom’s political-religious structure is paramount in its dealings with the subgroups of the country. The recent trend in Middle Eastern regional society does not seem positive for Saudi Arabia. Notwithstanding the globalized movements toward efficient energy and the unpredictable nature of boom and bust cycles on their natural resource, Saudi Arabia is one of the last monarchies in the region.
Trends that began in 1979 Iran, have since disseminated throughout the majority of the region. According to Hillel Frisch, monarchies last if they employ different strategies, although certain strategies can create vulnerabilities for the monarch. Among these strategies, Saudi Arabia is able to cross out every box. The first strategy is divide and rule; the Saudi Kingdom reflects this strategy as is well documented throughout the paper.
The proliferation and dissemination of Wahhabism to reflect and sustain its own interest not only throughout the Middle East but within the borders. Wahhabism and its interwoven relationship with politics fosters a society that deems non-Muslim and Shi’a minority as heretic. The manipulation of the media as well as Shia clerics illustrates the lengths the state is willing to embark in efforts to render the minority population delegitimize. Regarding the latter, the dismantling of Shi’a religious hierarchy by manipulating the clerics with money and overall co-optation exude the authoritative nature the Saudi monarch has.
Furthermore, the state uses their robust revenue as a vessel in garnering a placate populace, as well as gaining political favors from normal political opponents displays the capacity and the lengths the Saudi state will set forth to topple any possible dissent. This is all possible by Frisch’s second strategy, the abundance of natural resources. Saudi Arabia’s GDP is 85% based off of their oil reserves, which happens to reside in the Eastern Province. Unequal money distribution, the incorporation of foreign non-Muslim workforce, as well as superfluous spending overtures in the face of public disapproval has culminated for a docile and dependent population.
The third tactic which Saudi Arabia has utilized is the alliance with powerful countries. Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the United States, although brought unsettling tension from neighboring and regional actors, has become very useful for the Kingdom considering the level of security the Kingdom has compared to other Arab run states. Frisch did promote the idea of certain vulnerabilities that could fall upon Saudi Arabia, and that is vulnerabilities from regional actors (Frisch 2011, pg. 167-173).
The tension that is abundant in the Eastern Province has been interesting to say the least. Neighboring countries that reflect the policies Saudi Arabia deploys region-wide have further dampened this issue considering the problems they face within their borders, e.g. Bahrain, Yemen. The ultimate fear and level of anxiousness that perpetuates throughout the Sunni-Arab world has been because of Iran. Iran has proxy wars with two countries in the region: Saudi Arabia, and Israel. Iran’s movement throughout the region as a strong opponent of monarchical governments and imperialism has placed Saudi Arabia within its crosshairs.
The international community has most recently condemned Saudi Arabia for the murder of a Washington post reporter, Khashoggi, as well as the mass execution of state-pronounced terrorist. Saudi Arabia’s sectarian dynamic has been marred by foreign external factors, coupled with the radical ideology that laid the framework of their political system. Irrespective of these potential pathologies, Saudi Arabia has remained a strong political ally in the region, as well as a key oil distributor in the global market. Saudi Arabia and the al-Saud family seems to be staying in power for the meantime, unless a foreseeable political power transformation can be had.