Shia: The “second class” in the House of Saud

Interviews with dissident Ali al-Ahmed, director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs, and Toby Matthiesen, author of the acclaimed book The Other Saudis: Shiism, Dissent and Sectarianism (Read more…)

Supporters of Hezbollah and the Amal movement carry pictures of executed Saudi Shiite Muslim cleric Sheik Nimr al-Nimr during a protest in Beirut on Jan. 3, 2016
© Nabil Mounzer | European Pressphoto Agency

Ali al-Ahmed was not surprised with the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a spiritual leader of the largest Arab Shia minority in the Middle East. “The Saudis are in trouble”, says the director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs in Washington, in a telephone interview.

“Their regime needs to intimidate and silence the people. The war in Yemen is a fiasco. Their plans for Syria are a failure. Their military intervention in Bahrain is a proved disaster. Iraq is progressing against the ‘islamic state’ [Daesh]. And their economy is in crisis due to the fall in oil prices.

According to Ahmed, by giving the green light to the capital punishment of Nimr and dozens of other opponents, “the Saudi government wanted to send a clear message, to both Shia and Sunnis: ‘We are the only rulers, and death will be your fate if you dare to rise up’ against us.”

As Sheikh Nimr, journalist Ali al-Ahmed lived in Qatif,  in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. At 14, “just for being a Shia,” he became the youngest political prisoner in the country.

Now, at 50, he is still fighting for “equal rights; separation of state and religion; a republic.” In a telephone conversation, he cautions: “Do not expect reforms while this royal family remains in power.”

People protest in front of Saudi Arabia's embassy during a demonstration in Tehran © Reuters

People protest in front of Saudi Arabia’s embassy during a demonstration in Tehran, after the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr
© Reuters

Ahmed’s dissent is a paternal and maternal inheritance. “Our struggle is not sectarian, but against the House of Saud. Many of my ancestors belonged to Sunni tribes who converted to Shiism, one hundred years ago. One of my uncles was arrested for belonging to a party, with Sunni and Shia militants.”

“I have friends who are Sunni and even Wahhabi [the ultraconservative Islamic doctrine imposed by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792) following an alliance with the founding king, Ibn Saud].”

His younger brother, 42, remains in jail, serving a 17-year sentence, apparently a punishment for Ahmed’s decision of seeking refuge in the US from where he condemns the crimes of the monarchy.  “One day I was invited to return”, Ahmed tells me.

“I was even offered money. I asked them, ‘Why do you harass us? We [Shia] are a minority. Like all minorities, we would be more loyal than the Sunni majority’. They put the blame on Iran, and I replied, ‘We were being discriminated long before Iran became a thorn. Your problem is ideological. Iran is only an excuse. What’s at stake is your survival. Your determination to remain in power at any cost’.”

About 10 to 15 percent of the nearly 29 million inhabitants of Saudi Arabia, the Shia make up the majority in the Eastern Province. “We have everything to be a separate state: water, agriculture, most of the oil fields and an educated population”, stated Ahmed.

“The secession was a real plan discussed some fifteen years ago. Sheikh Nimr advocated this option – which was very dangerous. The truth is that we can no longer be marginalised. There is not only one Shia mayor, not only one diplomat, not only one Police officer.”

“At school, our children learn that they belong to a heretical sect. We are accused of spitting in the food of the Sunni and piss on what they drink. But we are the ones who have developed the oil industry, when ARAMCO [consortium created by the Americans but now in the hands of the Saudis] was established. What would Saudi Arabia be without the Shia?”

A Saudi Shia Muslim takes part in commemorations on the tenth day of the mourning period of Muharram, which marks the day of Ashura, on 12 October 2016

Unlike Ali al-Ahmed, the Swiss academic Toby Matthiesen was not expecting the execution of Nimr al-Nimr, “who was very prominent” in Saudi Arabia and Shia-majority Bahrain, “but not as famous as he is now”, especially in Iran.

“The sheikh was sentenced to death two years ago and since two years the Eastern Province has been relatively quiet,” said the author of two master works – The Other Saudis: Shiism, Dissent and Sectarianism and Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Spring That Wasn’t.

“By rejecting international calls for a pardon, the Saudi authorities “made perfectly clear that all internal rebellion, either Shia or Sunni, would not be tolerated. The Sunni opposition being the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda and the ‘Islamic state’.”

Nimr, as Ali al-Ahmed reminded, was an advocate of secession from Saudi Arabia of the Qatif, where he was born in 1959 (in the poor village of Awamiya), and Al-Hasa governorates of Eastern Province, to be united with Shia-majority Bahrain.

In a way, Matthiesen stated, he was closer to the activists of the “Arab Spring” than to the mullahs in Tehran, although he was an exile in Iran (before Damascus).

He was linked to a Shia transnational movement founded, in the 1970s, by the Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Mahdi al-Shirazi (1928-2001). Born in Najaf (Iraq), Shirazi was a rival of Khomeini, the architect of the Islamic Revolution.

He did not recognise his title of marja al-taqlid, or source of emulation. He was also critical of the Velayat-e Faqih concept, which concentrates all power in a supreme leader, and thereby conceived another doctrine, Hukumat al-Fuqaha, a collective theocracy not based in one single individual. Neither did he accept the choice of Ali Khamenei to be the successor of Khomeini.

Shi'ite Muslims place copies of the Koran on their heads during a ceremony marking the death anniversary of Imam Ali at his shrine in the holy city of Najaf, about 160 km (100 miles) south of Baghdad © Ahmad Mousa | Reuters

Shia Muslims place copies of the Koran on their heads during a ceremony marking the death anniversary of Imam Ali at his shrine in the holy city of Najaf, about 160 km south of Baghdad
© Ahmad Mousa | Reuters

After the founder’s death, in the Iranian city of Qom, the Shirazi movement split in two branches: those who follow his brother Sadiq al-Shirazi and those who sided with the nephew Muhammad Taqi al-Mudarrisi. Nimr joined Mudarrisi’s faction, less conciliatory than the one of Sadiq.

“Unlike other Saudi Shia leaders who accepted an amnesty in the 1990s and were open to negotiations to have more rights, he was not interested in reforming the political system but rather in bring it down”, Matthiesen said.

In his sermons, Nimr did not ask for calm but encouraged young people to take to the streets in protest, whether in the Eastern Province or in Bahrain. He was arrested and wounded in a leg in 2012, during a raid in Awamiya, where he had already participated in an uprising in 1979. He never capitulated.

There was yet another, more personal, reason to kill (probably crucified, and buried in an unnamed tomb) the sheikh who was also an ayatollah.

The Saudi royals “felt insulted when he celebrated the death of Prince Nayef”, interior minister and heir to the throne, in 2012, said Matthiesen, one of the greatest experts on Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. “Let the worms eat him”, Nimr proclaimed in a video posted on social media.

The actual aim of Riyadh, “always interested in fomenting sectarianism”, is to focus the attention on Iran and divert it from domestic economic problems and external military setbacks, added the Senior Research Fellow in the International Relations of the Middle East at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford, echoing the opinion of Ali al-Ahmed.

Is the House of Saud an isolated kingdom? Toby Matthiesen thinks not. “In trouble, yes, but confident that it can count on their American allies – despite Washington’s criticism of Nimr’s execution. Because the US has major military bases in the Gulf: in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain.”

“We can not exclude the risk of a war”, Matthiesen admitted. “But it will be a proxy war without winners. And the main victims will keep on being the Yemenis and the Syrians.”

Read more here (Toby Matthiesen), here (F. Gregory Gause) and here (Toby Craig Jones, author of “Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia”)

Ali al-Ahmed, director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs

Toby Matthiesen, author of The Other Saudis: Shiism, Dissent and Sectarianism 

This article, now updated, was originally published in the Portuguese newspaper EXPRESSO, on January 7, 2015

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