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Sectarian Discrimination in Saudi Arabia: The Forgotten Story of the Arab Spring Protests


During the Arab Spring, there was significant enthusiasm in “the West” concerning the unrest and political change in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. However, comparatively little attention was paid to a different kind of protest movement happening in Saudi Arabia. The majority of these protests occurred around the eastern province of the country, in the main city of Qatif and surrounding towns. The protests called for an end to sectarian discrimination. Demands were diffuse but broadly included ending political and economic marginalisation of the Shia minority community. These initial protests would be largely suppressed after a crackdown by the Saudi authorities, including the killing of a protestor and two of his relatives.


Protests would flare up again in 2017, following the detention of female human rights activist Israa al-Ghomgham and the prosecutors seeking the death penalty for her. These protests represented a continuation of the earlier protest movements with low-level violence prevalent. The momentum for these protests continued due to anger over the demolition and redevelopment of the al-Musawara neighbourhood, where residents were forced from their homes and the execution of of Saudi Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr.


This article sets out to determine whether the Saudi state has shifted to addressing the grievances of its Shia community. Since 2020, despite low-level violence remaining, major protests have slowed down in eastern Saudi Arabia. Alongside this, the man considered de factor ruler of the country and a reforming force, Mohammed Bin-Salman has recently claimed that both Sunni and Shia live together in Saudi Arabia and that Shias are an “integral part of the kingdom’s society”. The reduction in violence, along with MBS’s positive rhetoric may suggest the Shia community are seeing positive change; however, in reality any changes which have happened thus far have been limited in scope.


Economic treatment


In terms of the economic development of Shias, a mixed picture seems to have developed. In 2018, an ODW report found: "ongoing structural and government-sanctioned discrimination against Saudi Arabia’s Shia Muslim community, including in both private and public sector employment", with little evidence for improvement in this sector over subsequent years. This frustration over the lack of progress came to a head in April 2022 with protests by Qatif fishermen against new government surcharges imposed on their industry. This protest, in the Shia heartlands of Saudi Arabia reflects continued frustrations against the Saudi government among the Shia community.


Like much of the wider world, the Saudi Arabian economy was damaged by the COVID-19 pandemic. As the first region to be locked down, the eastern provinces were the first to be affected by the pandemic. Furthermore, a study of the effects of the virus on Saudi Arabia found that quality of life fell universally as a result of the pandemic. Whilst no study looks specifically at the sectarian implications of the pandemic, the fall in quality of life is exacerbated by certain demographics which Saudi Arabia’s Shia populations are more likely to be a part of. These include poorer sections of society and the less educated.


However, there is some hope for change for the Shia population through investment in Shia communities and the vision 2030 programme. This is seen in an almost USD 300 million investment in the al-Musawara district, in the eastern province. This follows damage caused by conflict with protestors in the area around the time of the Arab Spring – resulting in the neighbourhood being razed. Reinvestment and reparations in the area show an attempt to appeal to the Shia community, which is in line with statements made as part of the ambitious Vision 2030 plan. The wider impact of the scheme can already be seen in Qatif with Saudi media reporting infrastructure projects already underway and development of a tourist hub for the region.


Socio-Political


The prospects for the Shia community in Saudi Arabia’s socio-political sphere also appear to be mixed. Saudi-backed news outlet, Arab News, described the population as "witnessing one of their most brilliant historic stages", in response to a state passed law which criminalises incitement against Shias, and desecration of mosques. The article goes on to consider notable Saudi-Shia businessmen and administrators to illustrate progress in high-level employment for the minority community. This does mark some progress; however, there are also significant limitations. Shia figures are absent from the Council of Senior Scholars and other religious state institutions, with this type of inclusion seemingly not a priority for the Saudi state. A US government report published in 2021 also acknowledges a "lack access to senior positions in the government and military", which paints the elevated status of some Shia figures as an exceptional circumstance, rather than the rule.


While Shia Muslims continue to face discrimination in political appointments, some advancements have been made towards combating prejudice in the realm of education. In the past, state textbooks were notorious for their anti-Semitic and anti-Shia rhetoric, but according to a report by Human Rights Watch, some improvements have been observed. Nonetheless, the report also points out that there are still areas where textbook reforms have fallen short, particularly in the portrayal of practices that are closely associated with Shia Islam as being sinful. Although overtly discriminatory language has been eradicated from the textbooks, implicit anti-Shia sentiments persist.

The 2021 report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom highlighted ongoing limitations on the practice of Shia Islam in Saudi Arabia. These restrictions encompassed the construction of Shia Muslim mosques, which remained prohibited outside the majority-Shia Muslim areas in the eastern province. Moreover, the Shia call to prayer was often banned in these regions. Alongside this, recent reports have emerged suggesting that the al-Harif mosque in the eastern province was demolished by Saudi authorities in November 2022. It is worth noting, however, that these accounts have mostly come from news outlets linked to Iran. Despite these limitations, Saudi authorities permitted Shia Muslims to commemorate Ashura in 2020 during the pandemic, indicating a degree of respect for their religious traditions.


Policing and security


The brutal policing and punishment of Shias perpetrated by the Saudi authorities appears to have continued. The most prominent example of this being the March 2022 executions of 81 people, of which 41 were Shias, with torture used as a tool to achieve the prosecutions. The majority of those executed were the men, often young, who were involved in the Arab Spring and subsequent protests against the Saudi government. This has continued into 2023, with two more Shia citizens sentenced to the death penalty, without legal representation.


The Saudi government has also continued a trend of detaining Shia dissidents. This includes Shia scholar, Hashim Muhammad al-Shakhs, who was taken from his home in 2020, with his whereabouts currently unknown, causing fears for his safety. Moreover, University of Leeds PhD candidate and Saudi women’s rights campaigner Salma al-Shehab was detained in August 2021 and charged with offences in connection with her social media accounts. The freedom initiative alleges that religious discrimination against members of the Shia community may have played a role in her draconian sentencing.


Conclusion


It can be inferred from this that little improvement has occurred so far for the Shia minority community in Saudi Arabia, outside of a rise in profile for some individual figures and attempts to moderate the state education programme. The most optimistic outlook for Shias now, is that these changes will moderate the next generation from maintaining the country’s historic religious conservatism where a particular conception of Saudi Sunni authority dominates the political discourse. This shift in societal values will be crucial to Mohammed Bin Salman being able to pursue more wide-ranging reforms to reach the "values of moderation, tolerance, excellence, discipline, equity, and transparency’, as set out in the Vision 2030 plan".


The re-establishing of a diplomatic relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia could also have positive implications for Saudi Arabia’s Shia community. This is as the minority community have often been accused of acting in collaboration with Iran, with sentencings passed out for spying for Iran and joining Iranian terrorist groups. With the thawing of relations between the Sunni and Shia states, it is possible that perceptions of Saudi Shias may also improve, along with government policy.


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