Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Main languages: Arabic
Main religions: Sunni, Shi’a, Zaydi and Isma’ili Islam. Christianity, Hinduism and other religions amongst the migrant workers.
Main minority groups: Shi’as (especially Twelver or Ithna’ashari) (10 – 15 per cent, though some estimates suggest their numbers may be as high as 25 per cent), Isma’ilis 700,000 and Zaydis Muslims
A significant minority of Saudis are Shi’a, mainly in the Eastern Province or ‘Ash Sharqiyah’ (in particular the al-Hasa region), but with substantial communities elsewhere as well. The Shi’a population is generally estimated at 10-15 per cent, though according to some estimates their actual population could be as high as 25 per cent.
There are approximately 700,000 Isma’ilis in the region of Najran.
The Zaydis in the country include citizens living on the borders with Yemen as well as migrant workers from Yemen.
While Saudi Arabia is sometimes thought of as religiously homogeneous, given the dominance of Wahhabism within the country, Saudi society in fact spans a wide range of religious affiliations, although their presence is often rendered invisible. Though the population overwhelmingly subscribe to Islam, mainly Sunni Islam, this includes many variants. Some estimates put the Sunni population at around 85–90 per cent, however the lack of religious-based censuses means that only estimates of their numbers by different researchers are available. According to some sources, however, the true extent of the country’s Shi’a population may be severely under-represented, with one estimate putting the proportion at almost 25 per cent.
Whatever the exact proportion of the total population, Saudi Sunnis comprise several different strands with varying levels of acceptance within Saudi Arabia. The majority follow the Hanbali school of jurisprudence. Although it derives in large part from the Hanbali school and is enshrined as the official version of Sunni Islam in Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism itself has been estimated to have only around 4 million adherents in total – a little over a fifth of the population – using ‘cultural not confessional criteria’, though other figures put the total somewhat higher. There are also three other distinct Sunni groups – Hanafi, Maliki and Shafi’i – with some members, mainly based in the western province of Hejaz, subscribing to Sufism. Members of non-Hanbali Sunni groups face varying levels of discrimination, including restricted religious freedoms, due to the prescriptive official definition of Sunni Islam along Wahhabist lines. This is especially evident in the western region of Hejaz, where many Maliki and Shafi’i worshippers reside, particularly over differences between Hijazi communities and the majority over the celebration of religious ceremonies such as mawlid.
More than 30 per cent of Saudi Arabia’s population of 28 million are thought to be non-nationals. Migrant workers constitute the majority of these non-nationals. A significant proportion work as domestic workers and do not enjoy sufficient legal protection. Migrant workers cannot get residency and their stay is always considered temporary.
Updated March 2018.
Recent developments in the Middle East, including the rapid rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS), have led many commentators to investigate the link between violent religious extremism and ultra-conservative Islamic teachings sponsored for decades by leading Saudi families and the Saudi state, not only within its own territory but also across the region and beyond. However, the situation of religious minorities within Saudi Arabia has recently attracted renewed attention, especially following repeated attacks against Shi’a places of worship. In January 2016, for example, four were killed and 18 wounded in an attack on a Shi’a mosque in Al-Asha region, followed by another attack against a mosque in May 2016 in Dammam that also saw resulted in four deaths. Shortly afterwards, in June, a mosque in the Shi’a-majority province of Watif was attacked by a suicide bomber as part of a series of coordinated attacks across the country.
However, the recent surge in violence cannot be separated from the broader context of religious discrimination in Saudi Arabia – the continued proliferation of hate speech, official restrictions on religious freedoms, the systematic exclusion of religious minorities from public life as well as the government’s violent crackdown and repression of Shi’a activists, including many leaders issued with death sentences. While authorities have tended to present the attacks primarily in terms of security, with an emphasis on the role of international terrorism, the violence is also rooted in the continued failure of the government to respect the rights and freedoms of Shi’a and other religious minorities.
Legally, politically and economically, the Saudi government has long promoted an exclusionary form of Sunni Islam while disenfranchising many other religious communities in its diverse population, including not only Shi’a Muslims but also certain branches of Sunni Islam that differ from the officially prescribed interpretation. To this day, freedom of religion is not guaranteed by law in Saudi Arabia and all Saudi citizens are required to follow Islam. Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, adherents of other religions as well as atheists and agnostics, who together number around 2 million people, are forbidden from publicly expressing their beliefs.
While this situation has persisted for decades, the outbreak of protests in 2011, concentrated particularly in the under-developed Eastern Province where a large proportion of Saudi Arabia’s Shi’a population reside, has resulted in a further crackdown against Shi’a in an attempt to curb dissent. The regime responded harshly to protesters in the Eastern Province, sometimes firing on unarmed protesters, and as many as 21 activists were killed and many injured over the next three years. Saudi security forces continued to conduct raids on homes in the Eastern Province, bringing the total of Shi’a citizens arrested in connection with the protests to over 1,000. A large number of those arrested remain detained, while several key activists have been tried and handed excessively harsh sentences for their involvement in what was largely a peaceful movement. The situation culminated with the execution in early January 2016 of four Shi’a men, including the prominent Shi’a cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, who had voiced support for the 2011 protests; the executions sparked further demonstrations.
There have been some efforts by key players in Saudi society to overcome religious divisions in the country, with the aim of improving national unity through greater tolerance of diversity – an important step forward from the prescriptive and exclusionary ‘consolidation’ of the 1992 Basic Law. Moderates have worked to generate public support and initiate inter-communal dialogue through seminars, cultural forums and other platforms. There are around 120 forums in the country serving as a bridge for intellectuals from different regions to interact. Various organizations have also advocated for more inclusion, such as the Aafaq Center for Research and Studies, which has published a series of joint studies on different national issues by a diverse range of writers from various regions and backgrounds. In recent years, various petitions calling for strengthened rights and freedoms for the Shi’a community have also been presented to authorities.
Nevertheless, the situation of religious minorities continues to be precarious, as illustrated by the proliferation of hate speech in the country, believed by many analysts and local community leaders to have contributed to violence against certain religious communities. While the Saudi government has attempted to crack down on clerics who promulgate sectarian rhetoric at the pulpit – the Ministry of Islamic Affairs has apparently dismissed thousands of imams since 2003 for propagating ‘extremist ideologies’ – there is no law in Saudi Arabia that specifically criminalizes hate speech: the Consultative Council voted against a ‘national unity protection proposal’ in June 2015, which was mainly drafted in the wake of the anti-Shi’a attacks with the aim of countering hate speech in Saudi Arabia. Countless clerics who preach sectarian hate continue to go unpunished, and often hold prominent social positions. The cleric Saad bin Ateeq al-Ateeq, who is notorious for sectarian hate speech and has repeatedly called on God to destroy Shi’a, Alawites, Christians and Jews (including on at least one occasion in 2015), serves as ‘supervisor for Islamic awareness’ at the Ministry of Education and is often invited by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs to give public lectures at a variety of educational and charitable events.
Updated March 2018.
Saudi Arabia borders Yemen, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain (by a bridge link), Kuwait, Iraq and Jordan. It also stretches from the Arabian/Persian Gulf in the east to the Red Sea in the West.
The intersection of politics and religion, specifically Wahhabism, in Saudi Arabia can be traced back hundreds of years. Considered by its adherents as a return to the purity of tawhid, the monotheistic faith of Islam, the movement first took shape in the eighteenth century under the leadership of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, though it also drew on earlier religious teachings. The movement was consolidated following al-Wahhab’s pact with Mohammed bin Saud, a local emir, who proceeded to establish what would subsequently be described as the First Saudi State. Following his death in 1765 his son took power, maintaining a close alliance with the Wahhabi mission.
Strongly inspired by Wahhabi doctrine, including its belief that any deviations from their own belief system were heretical, the Sauds rapidly extended their territory, with the aim of combating supposedly ‘polytheistic’ practices such as local pilgrimages and shrines. This ideological underpinning drove their expansion. The First Saudi State eventually reached as far as Mecca and Medina, both cities long under the control of the Ottoman Empire, before Ottoman forces brought its territory under their control in 1818.
Though its power fluctuated over the ensuing decades, the House of Saud maintained its close association with the Wahhabi mission. Consequently, the partnership between the two groups remained in place after the fall of the Second Saudi State in 1891 and in the years that followed until the founding of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932. In the decades that followed, Wahhabi religious leaders were able to exert considerable influence over many institutions within the Saudi state, including education and the judiciary, enabling them to shape many aspects of the country’s legislation and social norms. This has had very significant and wide-ranging implications for the country’s religious minorities – impacts that are felt to this day.
Despite the modernization plan pursued by King Faisal after he came to power in 1964, Wahhabi influence within the Saudi Kingdom continued to grow, fuelled by the state’s efforts to counter the spread of communism and the vast revenues derived from its oil industry. Billions of dollars were channelled into the promotion of Wahhabi doctrine both within Saudi Arabia and outside the country, entrenching its influence internationally. This trend only intensified in the wake of the Iranian Revolution in 1979, pushing Saudi sponsors to increase their support of Wahhabism to counter any further growth of Shi’a Islam in the Middle East.
These issues were also felt acutely within Saudi Arabia following unrest towards the end of 1979 in Qatif, when Shi’a worshippers defied the public ban on the celebration of an important religious festival, the Day of Ashura, prompting the National Guard to launch a violent crackdown. Protests spread to other cities in the Eastern Province with large Shi’a populations, resulting in similar responses from security forces. At least 21 people were reportedly killed in these clashes. In the aftermath, while channelling more resources into the underdeveloped eastern region of the country, authorities intensified their surveillance of the Shi’a population.
The government’s response to another uprising that occurred in 1979, led by the Islamic radical Juhayman al-Otaybi, was markedly different. Increasing resentment of the government’s corruption and close relationship with the US as a betrayal of Islamic principles culminated in an attempted coup towards the end of the year, with hundreds of militants calling for an end to Saudi rule. However, though the uprising itself was suppressed and its leaders executed, King Khaled subsequently took steps to increase rather than diminish the influence of Wahhabi doctrine over the country’s political and social life. This was manifested in almost every aspect of life, including media censorship, cultural restrictions and increased gender segregation. The ensuing years also saw the expansion of religious universities, Islamic centres and the religious police, as well as the entrenchment of extremist perspectives in educational materials and curricula. According to Robert Lacey, now that ‘the House of Saud had executed Juhayman … they were making his program government policy’.
The relationship between Wahhabism and the Saudi government has fluctuated since then, particularly during the First Gulf War in 1990–91, when the stationing of large numbers of US troops on Saudi soil was highly controversial for many followers. This and other developments, such as the protracted mujahideen insurgency against Russian forces in Afghanistan during the 1980s, served to consolidate networks among religious militants as well as their resistance towards the Saudi monarchy. This animosity has been credited as a major driving force behind the subsequent attacks on US soil on 11 September 2001, with Saudi nationals comprising a large proportion of those involved.
In the wake of 9/11, Saudi authorities have taken steps to shift some power away from Wahhabi clergy and other religious bodies, particularly as attacks by militants against security forces, foreigners and other targets within Saudi Arabia escalated. This has included occasional efforts to promote greater inclusion for religious minorities and other marginalized groups, such as women, in the country. While the implications of these shifting policies have affected all Saudi citizens, the effects have been particularly acute for its religious minorities, who have been routinely marginalized within Wahhabist doctrine.
Abdul Aziz bin Abdul-Rahman Al Saud (later also known as ‘Ibn Saud’), began his campaign to reclaim the Al Saud’s ancestral domains in Najd in 1902. By 1926 he had expanded his control beyond Najd into al hasa in the east and the Hejaz in the west. The independence of these areas under Abdul Aziz’s rule was recognised by treaty in 1927. These various regions came to be unified as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932. Saudi Arabia has been ruled as a monarchy by the Sauds since that time. This was accomplished in part through the Al Saud’s alliance with the Wahhabi religious school, although the latter’s powers have on occasion been curbed by Abdul Aziz – a pattern that remains in evidence today.
The monarch carries the title ‘Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques’ (i.e. Mecca and Medina). This close relationship between a particular interpretation of Islam and politics is deeply engraved in all aspects of governance in Saudi Arabia. This is reflected, for example, in the speech of King Fahd at the time the 1992 Saudi Basic law was issued: ‘This State was set upon a clear course of politics and government. It was committed to propagating Islam and to fostering a sense of community. This is the course of Islam, the Creed and the Shari’a. Ever since the establishment of this righteous state, the people of the country have enjoyed happiness, security and unity of opinion. They have been living in harmony and fraternal cooperation, after a prolonged period of fear and division.’
The 1992 Saudi Basic Law establishes the structure of government in Saudi Arabia and it proclaims a ‘bill of rights’ for citizens. It reiterates the inseparability, in the regime’s perspective, of Islamic justice from Saudi rule. For example, Article 7: ‘The regime derives its power from the Holy Qur’an and the Prophet’s Sunnah which rule over this and all other State Laws.’ It also emphasises that the monarchy shall always remain in the Saud family (Article 5b) and outlines the extensive powers of the monarch (Articles 55-69).
There were expectations for political reforms as a result of international attention and the presence of international troops in Saudi Arabia for the liberation of Kuwait, subsequent to its invasion by Kuwait in 1990-91, yet these have proved somewhat optimistic. Local elections – for men only – were allowed for the first time in early 2005 but only for half of the members of the municipal councils. The elections were for half of the seats. The municipal councils are under the charge of the governor of each region – Saudi Arabia’s 13 regions having 179 municipal councils in all. The members and chairman of the national ‘parliament’, the Consultative Council’s (Majlis al-Shura) are all appointed by the monarch.
Semi-traditional participation, through access to those wielding power and patronage, continues in the form of majlis, or open meetings, with sheikhs and princes from the local to the national level – all the way up to the King. Yet these function more as a means to dispense patronage, gather information and pre-empt complaints, than as a means for political participation.
Saudi Arabia was hit by a number of terrorist attacks, mainly targeting foreigners and non-Muslims, since 2003. The government appears to have been able to regain control, in part through co-optation and the population’s disenchantment with the terror tactics. Societal tensions include unemployment and different perspectives on democracy, modernisation and the role of women.
Given the close intersection of Sunni Islam as the official religion with every aspect of Saudi Arabia’s legal and governance framework, this marginalization also translates into important civil areas such as the judiciary. The country’s 20-person Council of Religious Scholars – the ulema – responsible for guiding judicial decisions in line with religious teachings, is composed exclusively of Sunni Muslims. Of these, the overwhelming majority (17) adhere to the Hanbali school, with just one representative each from the three remaining Sunni schools. Shi’a Muslims, however, are not represented at all. Meanwhile, in most areas of life, Saudi law continues to be guided by Shari’a, defined along Hanbali lines.
The dominance of Hanbali-educated judges and chiefs of courts at all levels of the judicial system makes it relatively inaccessible for religious minorities. For example, the testimony of non-Sunni Muslims and other religious minorities may be discounted in court, particularly if set against that of a Sunni Muslim. While Shi’a in the Eastern Province, both in Al-Ahsa and Qatif, have had separate endowment and inheritance courts, headed by Shi’a judges, since the establishment of the Saudi kingdom, in recent years their authority has been reduced to personal and family matters such as inheritance and marriage issues.
The government’s harsh response to popular protests in Eastern Province, beginning in 2011 and involving many Shi’a demonstrators, has effectively silenced any discussion on possible alternative steps to improve national cohesion and end the country’s deeply entrenched tradition of religious discrimination. Saudi Arabia’s sectarian climate has been further reinforced by its military engagement in other countries in the region, notably Iraq, Syria and Yemen, and its long-standing rivalry with Shi’a-majority Iran. Though certain limited reforms have been credited to the late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, their scope and effectiveness were constrained by conservative forces within the country. Since his death in January 2015 and the accession of his half-brother King Salman to the throne, there has been little sign of positive progress, with continued repression and restrictions for religious minorities, women and other marginalized groups.
Updated March 2018.