November 12, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Saudi Arabia’s Shi’a Dilemma

• Anti-Shi’a attacks in Saudi Arabia, both physical and verbal, demonstrate the growth of sectarianism in the region

• The Saudi government tries to reassure its own Shi’a subjects while at the same time regarding all other Shi’a as a tool of Iran; this leads to confusion

• Yemen, with the continued rise of the Shi’a Houthi, is a case-in-point, and Yemen is now more important to Saudi Arabia than Iraq

• Indeed, it is a difficult neighborhood. 

On November 3, a nasty incident in al-Ahsa, a Shi’a area in the Eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia, in which gunmen murdered at least six people and wounded several others, appeared to be a very deliberate sectarian attack. It was Ashura, a particularly holy day in the Shi’a calendar, as it marks the death of Hussein ibn Ali—the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad—at the battle of Karbala in the seventh century—and so commemorates one of the decisive events in the Sunni-Shi’a split within Islam.

The Saudi authorities clearly took the incident seriously. They were quick to blame al-Qaeda and made several arrests in the days immediately following the attack. The interior minister, Prince Muhammad bin Nayif, visited the area to try to calm rising tensions in this oil-rich part of the kingdom, and to reassure the Shi’a population there that they had the full support of the government. His presence was a clear sign that the government is both deeply aware of the dangers of growing sectarianism in the region, and is determined to stomp on it as hard as possible.

Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. The Saudi government treads a delicate line between supporting its Shi’a citizens, and so maintaining security in the strategically important eastern provinces where they mostly live, and attacking other Shi’a as a fifth column of Iran, for example, in Yemen.

This may leave Sunnis in Saudi Arabia confused, especially as so much of the religious expression in the kingdom is fundamentally anti-Shi’a. As an example of the paradoxes this tension produces, a day after the attack in al-Ahsa, the respected Minister of Culture and Information, Abdulaziz bin Mohiuddin Khoja, considered a liberal supporter of King Abdullah’s reforms, announced that he had closed down the popular, privately-owned religious TV channel Wesal, well-known for hosting anti-Shi’a clerics who make no secret of their feelings. However, one day after that, King Abdullah announced that Khoja had decided to step down from his position, leaving people wondering whether he was pushed, or if this double action was coordinated.

It remains to be seen whether Wesal TV will be able to continue to broadcast in Saudi Arabia. In any case, as it live-streams its programs and offers other means of access through the Internet, its closure in Saudi Arabia may not end its sectarian influence in the country. It is an open question as to why Wesal has been allowed to survive as long as it has. And when it comes to attacking the Houthis, who have managed to transform from a small Shi’a tribe in northern Yemen to being an arbiter of power in Sana’a, the capital, the Saudi Government may not mind too much if Wesal continues to broadcast. One of its anchors recently tweeted a picture of dead Houthis with a derogatory message attached, and although his account was suspended, there was no public outrage.

Even more than in Iraq, the Saudi government is concerned with events in Yemen. For years, the interior ministry tried to help the former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh beat back the growth of al-Qaeda, as did the U.S. Administration. But Saleh was adept at double-dealing, and the fact that U.S. Treasury has just placed him on its sanctions list, suggests that he still is. The Treasury action was taken because Saleh is conspiring with the Houthi to undermine Yemen's President 'Abd Rabo Mansur Hadi’s attempts to appoint a government that could continue Yemen’s progress towards political and social stability. However, there is plenty to support the speculation that Saleh was equally ready in earlier days to conspire with al-Qaeda, as well as to take Saudi money to fight them both.

The Saudi concern is that the Houthis are being funded and armed by Iran—moving the proxy war between the two states from Iraq to Yemen. This is the neighborhood in which the Saudis live, beset by unreliable partners and reliable enemies. For all its wealth, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia struggles to set a strategic direction in its foreign policy at a time when all the key foreign policy issues it faces have a direct bearing on its internal security. It will need to set one of the fallen dominoes back on its end before things get better, and that will require more than Saudi efforts alone.



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