Relations between the Shi’a minority and the Sunni majority in Saudi Arabia aren’t great even in teh best of times, but in some ways the events of the past few years – notably the war in Iraq and the emergence of Iran as a regional player via proxy in the Israel-Palestine conlfict – have made fears of a “Shi’a Crescent” more acute among the Sunni establishment. This has translated into increasing restrictions on the Shi’a in KSA, but it also has meant that the Shi’a minority is also emboldened to a degree to push back.
The hopes of Saudi Arabia’s Shia minority for greater representation
were dashed last month when Riyadh shook up its government and
King Abdullah appointed reformers to strategic posts in government
and the first female deputy minister, and opened the door for diversity
within the senior ulema council – the body that shapes religious and
legal discourse in the kingdom. But although Sunni Muslims were invited
to advise the council for the first time, Shia clerics were not invited.
Analysts warn that marginalisation of the estimated 1.5m to 2m Shia
living in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province fuels tensions in
the region – with majority-Shia Iran across the Gulf and majority-Shia
Bahrain across a causeway, and a newly installed Shia government in
Iraq. They believe that the kingdom can no longer afford to ignore the
It is not regional politics, however, that are at the root of this
problem. Rather, it is a well-developed and centuries old religious
fear and loathing of Shi’ism that is proving the most troublesome
barrier to resolving the frictions that run through the country and
society. The Ismailis in Najran, for instance, have nothing to do with
Iran or Iranian Shi’ism, but they still find themselves targets of
opprobrium with some measure of government involvement. Here, the
typical Saudi fear of ‘the other’ rears its head to the detriment of
Saudi Arabia as a whole.
While King Abdullah has taken measured steps to open the door to
other manifestations of Sunni Islam within Saudi Arabia, he needs to
push that door further in welcoming Saudi Shi’a to the fold.
I personally consider this to be a human rights and freedom of religion issue as far as Shi’a within Saudi Arabia are concerned, but there is a broader strategic question as pertains to US policy as to whether there is such a thing as a “Shi’a Cresent” or not and what impact it may have on our long-term goals for the region. The Council on Foreign Relations actually had a symposium titled “The Emerging Shi’a Crescent” in summer of 2006 (audio, video and transcript available) that delved into this question in great depth, with luminaries such as Fouad Ajami and Vali Nasr (author of The Shi’a Revival) on the panel. It’s a substantive discussion with quite a lot of ideological depth and diversity, and I think is essential reading for anyone intent on commenting on sectarian tensions in the Middle East. My general take is that the Shi’a are indeed resurgent, but the idea of a “crescent” as being anything more tangible than a general demographic feature is as tenuous as the idea of a broader pan-Islamic Ummah. It doesn’t exist except in the minds of romantics; there is no unity across nationalist boundaries (and often not even within them).
Incidentally, I’ve inaugurated a new category here at City of Brass, The Shi’a Crescent, in which I plan to devote more attention to these sectarian tensions and hopefully, solutions.
Related: Fouad Ajami’s essay early into the Iraq War (which he supported) about how Sunnis feared Shi’a emancipation. Also, via POMED, another essay about Shi’a repression in Saudi Arabia, which has led to threats of secession by some Shi’a clerics. Given that most Shi’a live in the oil-rich provinces, you can imagine that the Saudis are taking that threat seriously.