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Saudi Arabia - Shia

Although estimates of the Shi'a population ranged from 5 to 20 percent, more reliable statistics put the figure at 10 to 15 percent. Shia are concentrated primarily in the Eastern Province, where they constituted perhaps 33 percent of the population, being concentrated in the oases of Qatif and Al Ahsa.

Maintaining peace in the Eastern Province, where most Saudi Shias live, is a top propriety for the Saudi government and the outside world that depends on Saudi oil. Nearly all of Saudi Arabias oil about one fifth of the global supply comes from the Eastern Province. From 2010 to 2015, 27 people were killed and more than 200 injured in sectarian clashes in the region.

At the level of the Ulema and other Islamically- educated Saudis, there is a division of thought and feeling between regarding the Shi'a as brother Muslims, with whom the ties of shared values are stronger than their differences, and a deeper and stronger strain of suspicion based on the perception that Shi'a beliefs are fundamentally heretical, not truly monotheistic, and that they contain in fact social and political strains deeply hostile to Sunni Arab societies. Such sentiments are shared in cruder form at more popular levels and are of course mirrored on the other side of the gulf. The religious and social antipathies involved are never far from the surface and will not disappear.

Freedom of religion is neither recognized nor protected under the law and is severely restricted in practice. The country is an Islamic state governed by a monarchy; the king is head of both state and government. Sunni Islam is the official religion. The country's basic law declares the Holy Qur'an is the constitution, and the legal system is based on the government's application of the Hanbali school of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence. The government claims to provide for and protect the right to private worship for all, including non-Muslims who gather in homes for religious services. This right was not always respected in practice and is not defined in law.

The government enforces its official interpretation of Sunni Islam. Some Muslims who did not adhere to this interpretation face significant political, economic, legal, social, and religious discrimination, including limited employment and educational opportunities, underrepresentation in official institutions, restrictions on the practice of their faith, and on the building of places of worship and community centers.

The largest group affected is the Shi'a. Some Shia were specifically concerned with the economic disparities between Sunnis and Shia, particularly since their population is concentrated in the Eastern Province, which is the source of the oil wealth controlled by the Sunni Al Saud of Najd.

Approximately 80 percent of Shi'a are "Twelvers" (followers of Muhammad ibn Hasan, whom they recognize as the Twelfth Imam) and are primarily located in the Eastern Province. Most of the remaining Shi'a population are Sulaimaniya Isma'ilis, also known as "Seveners" (followers of Isma'il ibn Jafar, whom they recognize as the Seventh Imam), and they reside primarily in Najran Province, around the residence of their sect's spiritual leader in Al Mansourah. In the western Hejaz region, there are approximately 150,000 Ashraf (descendants of the Prophet Muhammad) and 50,000 Nakhawala. Additionally, unconfirmed statistics put the number of Zaydis, residing primarily in the cities of Jizan and Najran, along the border with Yemen, at approximately 20,000. (Zaydis are followers of the first four of the Twelve Imams, but differ from Twelver Shi'a in recognizing Zayd ibn Ali as the fifth Imam).

From a theological perspective, relations between the Shia and the Wahhabi Sunnis are inherently strained because the Wahhabis consider the rituals of the Shia to be the epitome of shirk (polytheism; literally "association"), especially the Ashura mourning celebrations, the passion play reenacting Husayn's death at Karbala, and popular votive rituals carried out at shrines and graves. In the late 1920s, the Ikhwan (Abd al Aziz ibn Abd ar Rahman Al Saud's fighting force of converted Wahhabi beduin Muslims) were particularly hostile to the Shia and demanded that Abd al Aziz forcibly convert them.

In 1979 Shia opposition to the royal family was encouraged by the example of Ayatollah Sayyid Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini's revolutionary ideology from Iran and by the Sunni Islamist (sometimes seen as fundamentalist) groups' attack on the Grand Mosque in Mecca in November. During the months that followed, conservative ulama and Ikhwan groups in the Eastern Province, as well as Shia, began to make their criticisms of government heard. On November 28, 1979, as the Mecca incident continued, the Shia of Qatif and two other towns in the Eastern Province tried to observe Ashura publicly. When the national guard intervened, rioting ensued, resulting in a number of deaths. Two months later, another riot in Al Qatif by Shia was quelled by the national guard, but more deaths occurred. Among the criticisms expressed by Shia were the close ties of the Al Saud with and their dependency on the West, corruption, and deviance from the sharia. The criticisms were similar to those levied by Juhaiman al Utaiba in his pamphlets circulated the year before his seizure of the Grand Mosque. During the riots that occurred in the Eastern Province in 1979, demands were raised to halt oil supplies and to redistribute the oil wealth so that the Shia would receive a more equitable share. After order was restored, there was a massive influx of government assistance to the region. Included were many large projects to upgrade the region's infrastructure.

The Majlis al-Shoura (the Consultative Council) is responsible for approving laws and regulations. The king appoints the Consultative Council's 150 male full-time members and 12 female part time advisors. There are five Shi'a members. Established in 1971, the Ulema (Council of Senior Religious Scholars) is an advisory body of 20 persons that reports to the king. Three members of the council belong to non-Hanbali schools of Islamic jurisprudence, representing the Maliki, Hanafi, and Shafi'i schools; however, there are no Shi'a members.The 24-member Human Rights Commission (HRC) was established in September 2005 by the Council of Ministers to address human rights abuses and promote human rights within the country. The board does not include women or Shi'a members.

The government permits Shi'a judges presiding over courts in the Eastern Province to use the Ja'fari school of Islamic jurisprudence to adjudicate cases in family law, inheritance, and endowment management. There were six Shi'a judges, all located in the Eastern Province cities of Qatif and al-Ahsa, where the majority of Shi'a lived. Shi'a living in other parts of the Eastern Province, Najran Province, and the western Hejaz region had no access to local, regional, or national Shi'a courts. Two of the Shi'a judges served on the Qatif Court and one served on the al-Ahsa Court. The remaining three judges served on the Qatif-based Court of Appeals, which oversees the Qatif and al-Ahsa Courts. In January 2010 Shi'a judge Sheikh Hassan Bu Khamseen was dismissed after demonstrating opposition to some of the government's judicial decisions in 2007, reducing the number of Shi'a judges from seven to six.

Unlike for Sunni mosques, the process for obtaining a government-required license for a Shi'a mosque was reportedly unclear and arbitrary. Shi'a clerics were not funded by the the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Endowment, Call, and Guidance (MOIA) and instead relied on community contributions, which varied widely, depending on the number of congregants they served. Some private mosques employed clerics of other nationalities.

Public religious practice was generally limited to activities that conform to the official interpretation of Islam. Contrary practices, such as celebrating Maulid Al-Nabi (birthday of the Prophet Muhammad) and visits to the tombs of renowned Muslims, are forbidden, although enforcement was more relaxed in some communities than in others, and Shi'a were permitted to observe Ashura (the "day of grief" which commemorates the martyrdom of Hussein bin Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed considered by Shi'a to be the third Imam and rightful successor of the Prophet) publicly in some communities.

Shi'a continued to face systematic discrimination and intolerance tied to a variety of factors, including historical perceptions and ongoing suspicions of foreign influences on their actions. While they coexisted with their Sunni neighbors in relative peace, most Shi'a shared general concerns about discrimination in education, employment, political representation, the judiciary, religious practice, and media.

Judicial discrimination against Shi'a was evident during the reporting period. Shi'a courts' powers are limited by the fact that any litigant who disagrees with a ruling can seek a new decision from a Sunni court. Sunni court rulings can void Shi'a court rulings and government departments can choose not to implement judgments rendered by Shi'a judges. Shi'a leaders argue that the one court of appeals on which Shi'a judges sit has no real authority and only verifies documents. Jurisdictionally, these courts are only allowed to rule on cases in the Qatif and al-Ahsa areas; Shi'a from other regions cannot use such courts. Due to the Shi'a courts' lack of authority, six of their seven judges threatened to resign in 2007, but no action was taken by the government or the judges. In April 2008 the government unexpectedly replaced Sheikh Mohammad Al-Obaidan, the senior of the two Shi'a court judges in Qatif. Although there was no official reason given for his replacement, he had been critical of the government for giving only limited resources and authority to the Ja'fari courts. The perceived arbitrary nature of this action caused an outcry in the Shi'a community and Sunni judges continued to interfere in the work of the Ja'fari court during the reporting period.

In higher education the government discriminated against Shi'a in the selection process for students, professors, and administrators at public universities. For example, Shi'a constituted an estimated 2 percent of professors at a leading university in al-Ahsa, an area with a population that is at least 50 percent Shi'a. At the primary and secondary levels of education in al-Ahsa, there continued to be severe underrepresentation of Shi'a among school principals, with approximately 1 percent of area principals Shi'a, and none in al-Ahsa female schools. In Qatif, where Shi'a comprise approximately 90 percent of the population, many male principals and even some male religious teachers in primary schools were Shi'a; however, there were no Shi'a principals or religious teachers in Qatif's public female primary schools. There were no private schools for girls in Qatif.

Shi'a faced significant employment discrimination in the public and private sector. A very small number of Shi'a occupied high-level positions in government-owned companies and government agencies. Many Shi'a believed that openly identifying themselves as Shi'a would negatively affect career advancement.

In the public sector, Shi'a were significantly underrepresented in national security- related positions, including the Ministry of Defense and Aviation, the National Guard, and the Ministry of the Interior. Shi'a were better represented in the ranks of traffic police, municipalities, and public schools in predominantly Shi'a areas. Qatif community leaders described allegedly prejudicial zoning laws that prevent construction of buildings over a certain height in various Shi'a neighborhoods. The leaders claimed the laws prevented investment and development in these areas and aimed to limit the density of Shi'a population in any given area.

There was no formal policy concerning the hiring and promotion of Shi'a in the private sector, but anecdotal evidence suggested that in some companies, including the oil and petrochemical industries, a "glass ceiling" existed and well-qualified Shi'a were passed over for less qualified Sunni colleagues. Engineer Abdulshaheed al-Sunni, a high-ranking Shi'a official at the King Abdulaziz Sea Port in Dammam, reportedly resigned in September 2009 due to oppression and injustice which prevented him from being promoted.

Members of the Shi'a minority were also subjected to political discrimination. For example, although Shi'a compose approximately 10 to 15 percent of the citizen population and approximately one-third to one-half of the Eastern Province population, they were underrepresented in senior government positions. There were no Shi'a ministers, deputy ministers, governors, deputy governors, or ministry branch directors in the Eastern Province, and only three of the 59 government-appointed municipal council members were Shi'a. However, the Shi'a were well-represented among the elected members of the municipal councils, as they held 10 of 11 seats on the Qatif and al-Ahsa councils. An elected Shi'a headed the Qatif municipal council. With five Shi'a on the Consultative Council they were significantly underrepresented.

Shi'a mosques in mixed neighborhoods reportedly were required to recite the Sunni call to prayer, which is distinct from the Shi'a call, at prayer times. Moreover, although Shi'a combine two of the five daily Sunni prayers, Shi'a businessmen were often forced to close their shops during all five prayer times, in accordance with the country's official Sunni practices.

The government does not officially recognize several centers of Shi'a religious instruction located in Eastern Province, provide financial support to them, recognize certificates of educational attainment for their graduates, or provide employment for their graduates, all of which it does for Sunni religious training institutions. These centers were also subject to forced closures. Public religious training for non-Sunni religious groups is prohibited.

The government refused to approve construction or registration of Shi'a community centers. Shi'a were forced to build areas in private homes to serve as community centers. These community centers sometimes did not meet safety codes, and the lack of legal recognition made their long-term financing and continuity considerably more difficult.

Authorities allowed Shi'a in the Eastern Province city of Qatif greater freedom in their religious practices, including the public commemoration of Ashura (with minimal government interference). In other areas with large Shi'a populations, such as al-Ahsa and Dammam, authorities restricted Shi'a religious activities, including public observances of Ashura, public marches, loudspeaker broadcasts of clerics' lectures from Shi'a community centers, and, in some instances, gatherings within those centers.

Moreover, the government continued to exclude Shi'a perspectives from the state's extensive religious media and broadcast programming. The government sporadically imposed bans on the importation and sale of Shi'a books and audiovisual products. The government also blocked access to some Web sites with religious content it considered offensive or sensitive, including the Al-Rasid Web site, in line with a broader official policy of censoring objectionable content including political discourse and illicit materials. In addition, terms like "rejectionists," which are insulting to Shi'a, were commonly found in public discourse and could be found on the MOIA Web site.

The Medina Shi'a are a small, deeply rooted community of diverse believers including the Nakhawala, who are laborers by tradition. Nakhawala community leaders claim they face more issues than Shi'a Twelvers in the Eastern Province because they are not allowed to construct mosques, women's centers, or community centers, nor do they have access to Shi'a courts. They also claimed to hear anti-Shi'a sermons and statements regularly in their neighborhoods. Unlike the case with Shi'a from the Eastern Province, there were no prominent Nakhawala Shi'a in government bodies such as the Consultative Council or the HRC. In addition, the Nakhawala averred that their surname ("al Nakhly," which roughly translates as "farmers" and identifies their minority status and sect) facilitated systematic discrimination against them in employment and education.

Many Shi'a were also subjected to systematic religious discrimination. For example, the government does not finance construction or maintenance of Shi'a mosques. All new mosques required the permission of the MOIA, the local municipality, and the provincial government, which is functionally part of the MOI. The government approved construction of new Shi'a mosques in Qatif and some areas of al-Ahsa--sometimes after lengthy delays due to the numerous approvals required--but did not approve construction of Shi'a mosques in Dammam, home to many Shi'a. Shi'a leaders attributed the refusals to a government desire to discourage the growth of Shi'a populations in these communities. Since May 2008 al-Ahsa municipal authorities continued to halt construction of the Imam Rida mosque, the largest Shi'a mosque in al-Ahsa, reportedly due to building code violations.

Sunni clerics, who receive government stipends, occasionally used anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, and anti-Shi'a language in their sermons. A few senior clerics continued to use their pulpits to disseminate intolerant views. For example, a sheikh who was named to lead extra Ramadan prayers at the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 2008, a prestigious appointment, classified Shi'a clerics as "infidels" in two separate interviews with the BBC in May and June 2009. It was common for preachers in mosques, including the mosques of Mecca and Medina, to end Friday sermons with a prayer for the well-being of Muslims and for the humiliation of polytheism and polytheists [that is, Shia].

On 11 July 2008, controversial Shi'a sheikh Nimr Baqr al-Nimr of the Awamiyya neighborhood of Qatif delivered a sermon over two-hours in length in which he defended Iran's right to develop nuclear capabilities, complimented the Iranian people and government on their piety, and asked Iran to give assurances that it will safeguard the vital interests of people in neighboring nations. Sheikh al-Nimr also made various anti-American references, claiming that America "wants to humiliate the world."

In the case of America striking Iran, al-Nimr stated that "Iran has the right to close the Straits of Hormuz, to destroy the Zionist enemy, and to strike at American bases and American interests anywhere." While claiming to be wholeheartedly with Iran, al-Nimr did add that "we do not accept Iran's actions if it attacks our vital interests or when it becomes a suspect in a similar escalation and thus gives America an excuse and aids the hypocrites." In an attempt to move his support of Iran away from a purely political context, al-Nimr added that "our defense is not of Iran the state, but of divine values, it is a defense of the right."

The sheikh continued the tough talk in a 22 July 2008 interview with website The sheikh specifically cited issues such as permission to build hawzas, hussaiynias, religious colleges, centers and institutions; creation of a unified religious curriculum, or permitting a Shi'a curriculum in predominantly Shi'a areas; independence of the Jaafari court and a widening of the court's powers; and, resolution of what the Sheikh termed "actual discrimination," for example, the lack of Shi'a in the Council of Ministers, diplomatic corps, Shura Council and other governing institutions.

The controversial aspect of al-Nimr's 22 July 2008 statements were his warning that if the requests are not met, clashes will ensue. He added that in such an event, the Saudi Shi'a have the right to utilize any foreign power for protection, including Iran.

Al-Nimr followed Ayatollah Muhammad Taqi al-Mudarrasi, one of the founders of the Islamic Action Organization in Iraq, as his marja. Al-Mudarrasi does not espouse the ideology of wilayet al-faqih, in which a country is led by a single religious leader, but rather believes in shura al-fuqaha, in which a council of religious leaders should lead the state. Shura al-Fuqaha is an idea previously advocated by the late Ayatollah Mohammed al-Husseini al-Shirazi.

A recurring comment by friends and foes of Sheikh al-Nimr was that he lacked the ability to place his actions within a greater vision for the community. Though most described him as a kind personality, all agreed that he is unsure of what he wants to accomplish with his aggressive rhetoric. While his words appeal to those tired of what they see as stagnancy in securing greater Shi'a rights, most analysts believed that al-Nimr had no greater plan for his words, and instead simply lets emotion and demagoguery get the best of him.

Conspiracy theorists offered that the Ministry of Interior had not intervened because this radical Shi'a rhetoric plays into the hands of Interior Minister Prince Naif - and his Sudairi brothers - who they perceive as opposing the King's efforts at interfaith dialogue.

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Page last modified: 04-01-2016 20:03:13 ZULU