When protests broke out in January 2016 across the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia following the execution of Sheikh Nimr al Nimr, a prominent Shi’a cleric, and 47 other prisoners, relations between Shi’a groups and the Saudi establishment appeared to be at an all-time low. By 2017, following widespread protests amongst Saudi Arabia’s Shi’a population – estimated to be in the region of 10-15% – the Old Quarter of Awamiya, in the Kingdom’s Eastern Province was levelled by the state’s security forces in a months-long battle with militants. The design of the Old Quarter, replete with a maze of narrow alleyways, had long been used by those engaged in violent resistance to the state: it was destroyed after a campaign against militants alleged to have ties with Iran and replaced by a shopping and entertainment complex at a cost of almost $300 million.
In response to the gentrification of Awamiya, the mayor of the Eastern Province, Fahad Jubeir, declared optimism that the transformation of the area will “have the magical effect of changing the area from a shelter for terrorists into a beacon of civilization.” This process of gentrification was designed to cultivate a more pliant, docile Shi’a population and was emblematic of the programme of reforms implemented by the Kingdom’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) as part of a package of reforms aimed to redraw the very essence of the Saudi state under the banner of Vision 2030.
As part of this process, Shi’a groups have certainly benefitted from Vision 2030 and the process of de-sectarianization coming from the re-imagining of national identity: but this only refers to compliant individuals. Indeed, the biopolitical machinery of the state continues to be deployed by those in power against Shi’a – and others – who speak out against the ruling family and Vision 2030 more broadly. Therefore, de-sectarianization appears as an accidental bi-product of the new vision of Saudi identity.
The dramatic transformation of Awamiya is a consequence of evolving relations between the Saudi state and the Shi’a population, stemming from a broader re-imagining of the relationship between the state, Wahhabi ulemma and of religion in the Kingdom. Members of the royal family have long been torn between their loyalty to the Wahhabi dominated clerical establishment and desire for reconciliation with Saudi Shi’a. While there was little hope for a serious thaw in relations as violent tensions remained, a shift to a more positive relationship was brought about with the capture of the militants. In this way, improved relations between the state and Shi’a groups – intentional or not – could be one prominent bi-product of the creation of a new economic vision designed to help the Saudi state move away from a reliance on oil.
Re-Imagining the Saudi state
The very idea of reimagining the Saudi state is not new, but has taken place a number of times since the formation of the current incarnation in 1932. Indeed, this includes the central role of religion within the political organisation, the adoption of a trans-national form of Islam, and now a retreat into a nationalist agenda in what has been described as the fourth Saudi state. Some have described this as “hyper-nationalism”, centred around the Crown Prince, but constructed on an image of a Saudi citizen committed to economic and social change underscored by Vision 2030.
Central to this process is the re-imagining of the role of religion in Saudi Arabia. This process, understood as de-sectarianization is one that takes place in myriad forms and can be understood in a range of different ways, practically, conceptually, and methodologically.
As Hannah Arendt has persuasively argued, no collective identity is possible that does not close itself off against an outside; put another way, identities are defined in terms of what they are not.
The establishment of the Saudi state was brought about through the cultivation of a relationship between Al Saud tribe and Wahhabi clerics. The legitimacy of the ruling family has traditionally been forged from this alliance and a commitment to Wahhabism, whose perception of Shi’a Muslims as heretics had a dramatic impact on Saudi Shi’a.
Often framing Shi’a as rawafidh (rejectionists), government clerics used a wide range of derogatory language towards them, along with extolling a systemic process of discrimination. Shi’a religious practices were routinely inhibited, with mosques banned from broadcasting the call to prayer in al Ahsa. Moreover, Ashura processions in al Ahsa had been disallowed since 1913. Fatwas were routinely used to condemn Shi’a for their idolatry, polytheists, or calling them to convert to Islam. According to one member of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, “they are not our brothers […] they are brothers of Satan”.
As Kristin Smith Diwan astutely observes, Shi’a groups have been “culturally targeted by a religious orthodoxy that has disparaged them as deviant and politically marginalized by a state that has favoured both the Sunni religious establishment and a Najdi tribal elite”. Adding to this, Shi’a engagement with the Saudi state has long been conditioned by broader regional dynamics. Tensions with Iran, war in Iraq, the Arab Uprisings, and conflict in Syria and Yemen have all impacted on domestic relations, particularly as Shi’a are condemned in speeches by Saudi clerics. Yet in recent years, there appears to have been a thaw in relations, creating space for a recalibration in the relationship between Sunni and Shi’a but also in the very essence of the Saudi identity.
Nationalism and a Thaw in Relations?
While there was a gradual improvement in relations under Abdullah, who released political prisoners, developed infrastructure in Shi’a areas and relaxed restrictions on observing Shi’a rituals, there was trepidation about his successor. The coronation of Salman as King in early 2015 and his son Mohammad as Crown Prince in 2017, resulted in a re-calibration of Saudi national identity and a continuation of pragmatic engagement with the Shi’a.
This emerging Saudi nationalism is seen in a range of ways, helped by the ongoing conflict in Yemen, the rivalry with Iran, and the blockade of Qatar. On the state-religion pact, the kingdom recalibrated state discourse and policies with regard to Sunni extremism, while escalating the crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood. Moreover, the new Saudi political leadership reduced the role of Sunni clerics in the state (as in the case of the sahwa, the Islamic awakening movement). Yet social change is central to the evolution of the state.
Under the direction of the King and Crown Prince, Saudi Arabia has embraced a cosmopolitan geographic reality which includes pre-Islamic histories. In this process, Madain Saleh and Al-Ula are now two protected sites supported by the establishment of royal commissions to help tourism. Another example of pre-Islamic heritage as source of pride is Deriyya, the re-imagined first Saudi capital where Muhammad ibn Saud met with Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. In discussions with one Saudi advisor, he told me of the lack of awareness amongst Saudis about their own country, an issue exacerbated by the lack of internal movement within the Kingdom beyond the key cities. The new vision of Saudi Arabia also includes plans for global and internal tourism and the opening up of a state previously accessible to a select few.
While NEOM was the flagship of Vision 2030, the Eastern Province also benefitted from the economic plan. Traditionally, the Eastern Province has been an industrial powerhouse driven by extraction and refinement: but the region has recently engaged in diversification.
For example, the city of Al Khobar was the first in the Middle East to experience the 5G wireless network. Moreover, the healthcare industry in the province was given financial investments from external funders, notably the United Arab Emirates, leading to the establishment of world leading facilities for post-acute conditions and rehabilitation services.
An (un)intended beneficiary?
Domestically, the key beneficiaries of this de-sectarianizing move have been the Kingdom’s Shi’a population. Long the subject of persecution, discrimination, and victims of the punitive arm of the state, Shi’a in Saudi Arabia have suffered due to the virulent rejection of the Shi’a sect of Islam by the Wahhabi ulemma. Indeed, the erosion of the Kingdom’s previously intolerant Wahhabi vision has been fundamental to the de-sectarianization process in the Saudi state. Instead, in its place, is the claim that the Kingdom’s initial Islamic heritage was one of tolerance. Leaving aside the veracity of these claims, this concerted effort moves Saudi Arabia away from a reliance on religion and re-shapes its image internationally, much to the chagrin of Wahhabi clerics.
In spite of this, structural violence and xenophobia directed at Shi’a groups remains commonplace across the Kingdom. Human Rights Watch reports document accounts of hate speech, incitement to hatred and discrimination, along with lesser charges that require repudiation. Indeed, In contrast, speaking with Time Magazine, Mohammed bin Salman proclaimed that in the Kingdom “we have Sunni and Shiite sects. We have four schools of thought of Sunni, we have a lot of schools of thought of Shiite, and they are living normally in Saudi Arabia. They are living as Saudis in Saudi Arabia […] we don’t differentiate among Saudis based on sects. We live in Saudi Arabia as Saudis in Saudi Arabia”.
On a trip to the United States in 2018, MbS spoke of Saudi Arabia as a kingdom of Sunni and Shiite, underpinned by Islam, “the same culture and the same interest […] we believe that we are a mix of Muslim schools and sects”. A prominent Shi’a intellectual, Tawfiq Al Saif, celebrated this shift and the recognition that “Saudi national identity is the umbrella of all Saudis, and that their differences in doctrine fall within the diversity that enriches the country’s culture and life.”
Nevertheless, while Shi’a groups benefitted from the de-sectarianization trend, stemming from the cultivation of a new national identity, this only applies to docile and compliant members of society who accept the idea of the new Saudi state. Indeed, a wave of arrests have taken place against those dubbed ‘traitors’, or seen to be working with enemy governments and against Vision 2030. Arrests continue to take place across the Kingdom, including those from Shi’a communities, albeit at a far lesser rate than in previous years. While these reform moves are generally positive for Shi’a groups, the legacy of discrimination remains, along with a current of people who reject this burgeoning rapprochement and the gentrification of the Eastern Province.
What continues, however, is a dramatic transformation of the Saudi state, underpinned by a de-sectarianization of political life – and the re-imagining of the role of religion in the Kingdom – in an effort to reassert a nationalist agenda in support of the royal family. How COVID-19 and the economic crises that follow will affect this process remains to be seen, as the domestic impact of regional affairs. After all, this process of de-sectarianization is centered on an economic vision of the future that seeks to bring people together under the tutelage of the Crown Prince. It is still unknown whether this de-sectarianization process will play out in the medium to long term. But in the short term, there is a clear benefit for Shi’a Muslims in the Kingdom, on the assumption, of course, that they adhere to the vision set out by the new political leadership.