Jihadi Blowback in Saudi Arabia

After recent attacks on Saudi Shiites by jihadis returning home from the war in Syria, Paul Aarts asks whether Islamic State’s sectarian war might spill over into Saudi Arabia.

For a long time there has been speculation about whether jihadist forces would manage to spread beyond the Iraqi and Syrian conflict zone and infiltrate Saudi Arabia. When the Kingdom decided in September this year to support the US campaign against the Islamic State (IS) many wondered why Sunni jihadists did not retaliate. Would the jihadi ‘blowback’ against the ruling Al Saud dynasty ever begin?

Saudi jihadists

Saudi Arabia has bad memories of Arab jihadis returning from the Saudi-backed Afghan war against the Soviet Union of the 1980s. These former mujahideen turned their attention to the Saudi royal family after 2003. That is one of the reasons that official Saudi policy—backed by the fatwas of the official ulama (religious scholars)—is not to send any Saudi jihadis to foreign battlefields.

In practice, though, things have been different. Muhammad al-Qahtani, one of the country’s best known human rights activists, described government policy as amounting to one of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’. In the course of 2014, after IS ‘liberated’ large parts of Syria and Iraq, there were reports that at least 3,000 Saudis had joined them. This is unsurprising given that there is not that much difference between the ideological principles of Saudi Wahhabism and IS. According to most sources, Saudis, together with Tunisians and Libyans, are the largest group of foreign combatants fighting on the side of IS. It always seemed likely that one day they would take the fight back into the desert kingdom.

That day came early this month. On 3 November masked gunmen entered a husseiniya (Shia congregation hall) in the village of al-Dalwah where Shiites were celebrating Ashura, one of their holiest festivals. The terrorists killed seven worshippers and wounded another twelve. Soon Saudi newspapers reported that a Saudi citizen suspected of organizing the attack had returned from fighting in Iraq and Syria. Police detained thirty-three people and killed three suspects across the country. During subsequent clashes two security personnel were killed in Buraidah in the central Qassim region.

Systematic discrimination

Al-Dalwah is located in the oil-rich Eastern Province, where most of Saudi Arabia’s Shiites live. Discrimination against the Shiite minority, which amounts to between 10 and 15 per cent of the Saudi population, goes back to the time of the first king of modern Saudi Arabia, Ibn Saud. In 1913 he conquered the oases of al-Ahsa and Qatif where the majority of the inhabitants were Shiites, and they have been treated as second-class citizens ever since their formal incorporation into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932. Shiites have little say in local councils, nor do they hold any senior posts in sensitive ministries such as the Home Office or the Ministry of Defence. While living standards among Shiites have improved, the sense of being discriminated against remains unabated.

In 1979 Saudi Shiites, inspired by Iran’s Shiite Islamic revolution, held regular demonstrations in the streets of Qatif—protests that usually ended in skirmishes with the Saudi National Guard, resulting eventually in dozens of deaths. The leaders of the protests were sent into exile, but in 1993 the government allowed their return.

After a period of relative calm, tensions between Shiites and Sunnis surfaced again in 2003. The Iraq War, which resulted in a Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad, was the most important provocation. The Saudi government saw this as an ‘Iranian takeover’ of Iraq and it formed a pretext for sectarianism to become rife in the country once again. In February 2009 major disturbances took place in Medina when Saudi authorities harassed Shiite pilgrims as they attempted to visit the tombs of their imams. Saudi Shiites responded by putting on the largest demonstrations since 1979-1980, which were quelled with disproportionate violence.

Tensions really came to a head after Saudi troops were sent on 14 March 2011 to Bahrain to support the efforts of the Bahraini monarchy in crushing the Shiite rebellion there. Thousands of Saudi Shiites demonstrated in most of the towns and villages of the Eastern Province in solidarity with their co-religionists. The Saudi regime quickly responded with sectarian propaganda and further repression. Since then unrest, particularly in Qatif and Awamiyya, has been constant. There have been more than twenty deaths, mostly young people, since March 2011. An estimated 950 people have been arrested, of whom more than 200 are still detained.

The civil war in Syria has further stoked tensions in the Eastern Province. The increasingly sectarian character of the fighting, with Iran supporting the Shiite-Alawite regime of Bashar al-Assad, has led in Saudi Arabia to an even more blatant sectarianism in local politics. Sunni clerics do their utmost to demonise the Syrian regime and its allies, which has had implications for Shiites in Saudi Arabia itself. Shiites are often denoted as ‘rawafid’ (those who reject the ‘true Islam’), whose loyalty lies with Iran rather than Saudi Arabia. This notion is not only held by religious literalists, but is widespread among even the most educated and cosmopolitan Saudis.

One-time solidarity?

The Sunni terrorist attack of 3 November came as a rude awakening to many Saudis, including those who routinely denigrate their Shiite compatriots. Imported jihadi violence is not attractive to Saudis who recall the bloody al-Qaeda attacks across the kingdom from 2003 to 2006. Some of the subsequent actions of Saudi Sunnis perhaps even justify some optimism about the future of Sunni-Shiite relations in the Kingdom, despite the proximity of events in Syria and Iraq. Saudi officials fiercely condemned the attack. Minister of Interior Prince Mohammed bin Naif visited the husseiniya in al-Dalwah, a rare visit by a senior member of the royal family. His brother Prince Saud, Governor of the Eastern Province, visited the next day and the Grand Mufti Sheikh Abd al-Aziz Al ash-Sheikh slammed the terrorists in the strongest possible terms: ‘What has happened in al-Ahsa is an example of brutal aggression and a great injustice. This is carried out by sick minds seeking to incite fitna between people, God forbid’.

Even more significantly, the funeral of the victims was attended by an estimated 200,000 Saudis, chanting ‘Sunnis and Shiites, we are brothers!’—an event described by some funeral goers as ‘an extraordinary demonstration of national unity’. ‘They came from everywhere for the funeral—people travelled from Mecca, Riyadh, Jeddah and the north to attend,’ said Hussain Muwail, a Qatif local who travelled two hours by bus to the funeral. ‘There were people as far as the eye could see—we stood together, Shiites and Sunnis, not just to bury the martyrs but against the terrorists and their sectarianism’.

Against the background of deeply ingrained anti-Shiism among large sections of the population, this show of solidarity certainly was an important—and surprising—event. One swallow doesn’t make a summer however. For the moment, the number of open takfiri calls (that is, placing someone outside the community of believers) may have waned, but how long will this last? As long as the government continues to tolerate sectarian hate speech from Sunni clerics and (to list just one more pertinent example) does nothing to change Saudi school books which teach that Shiites are un-Islamic, tension will remain. As one human rights activist said after the attack in al-Dalwah, ‘[On Tuesday], we saw the religious rhetoric of Wahhabism translated into action.’ As more jihadis return home from an ever-intensifying sectarian situation in Syria and Iraq, Saudi Arabia will become more and more vulnerable to such attacks.

Paul Aarts teaches International Relations at the University of Amsterdam. His publications include Saudi Arabia in the Balance: Political Economy, Society, Foreign Affairs, which he edited with Gerd Nonneman, and Saudi Arabia: A Kingdom in Peril co-written with Carolien Roelants (forthcoming).

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