Shiite Uprising Sets Off Alarm Bells for Saudi Arabia

Shiite Uprising Sets Off Alarm Bells for Saudi Arabia

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JeddahSaudi Arabia's anti-Shiite policies are leading the country closer to the worst clash of the Shiite and Sunni schools of thought in the history of the Kingdom, a clash which will branch throughout the rest of the Muslim world.

The Eastern Province (Ash-Sharqīyah), the largest province of Saudi Arabia, is dominated by a population of two million Shiites and is termed as a significant site of opposition against the Saudi monarchy. Sources have revealed that Saudi higher-ups have raised the prospect of a Shiite insurgency in the Eastern Province and accused Iran for supporting the unrest. The Saudi Government, including the King, recently held a meeting to lay out a strategy on diffusing the effects of any expected Shiite uprising in the Kingdom, as unrest has been fueled by Iran in retaliation for the Saudi support of the rebels against Bashir al-Assad’s regime in Syria.

Shiites, as the minority sect at 17 percent of the total population of the country, face state-sanctioned discrimination fuelled by the Kingdom’s powerful Wahabi clerics: Shiites are banned from practicing their rituals in public, as well as from holding high positions in government, state-owned companies, and the judiciary. They are very often turned away from the government employment, including police, army, and security services positions. Every year thousands of Shiites face unfair trials and are jailed for speaking against the monarchy. Shiites are closely watched and monitored by Saudi intelligence agencies for routine activities.

The Saudi government has even restricted certain activities in an attempt to discourage Shiites from showing their identity, including outlawing names specific to Shi'a Islam. Most appallingly, there is no cemetery for Shiites in Saudi Arabia.

In 2011, in the wake of the Arab Spring, Human Rights Watch condemned Saudi Arabia's policies towards its Shiites citizens and urged on Saudi authorities to treat the Shiites’ minority as equal citizens. However, Saudi Arabia is a major U.S. ally, and the U.S. has refrained from publicly criticizing violations of human sights or the Kingdom’s role in putting down pro-democracy protests.

By supporting the rebels against the Assad’s regime in Syria, attempting to make Iran the world's only Shiite country, Saudi Arabia has unbolted a new war inside in its own territory that could unearth grave consequences for the sovereignty of the Kingdom.

The monarchy of Saudi Arabia is already deeply concerned, as the Eastern Province is‎ home to most of Kingdom’s Shiite population and 90 percent of Saudi oil, not to mention it is just 30-minute drive across the causeway from Bahrain. The aim of the recent conference called by the Saudi top officials was actually to gain support from Muslims countries, excluding Iran. A Saudi state news agency quoted Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal as saying that King Abdullah has called for "an extraordinary Islamic solidarity meeting to ensure... unity during this delicate time as the Muslim world faces dangers of fragmentation and sedition".

Meanwhile as Syria heads towards the fall of Assad’s regime, retribution from Iran is gradually increasing in the form of support for a Shiite uprising in Saudi Arabia, creating an increasingly dangerous situation for the stability of the Middle East as well as to the Saudi monarchy.

Saudi Arabia and Iran have a long account of enmity, with centuries which have never witnessed good relations due to the Saudi hold on Holy Kaaba. But now, both have geared up to blow the Middle East, which could lead towards a severe sectarian battle categorically injurious for the entire Muslim world.

Malik Ayub Sumbal is an award-winning journalist, a defense and strategic analyst, and a peace and conflict expert with more than ten years reporting on the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other international issues. Malik is currently based in Islamabad, is writing a book on state sponsored terrorism. He can be reached at

Photo: Omar Chatriwala of Al Jazeera English (cc).