Advancing a Free Society

Sunni vs. Shiite in Saudi Arabia

Sunday, January 16, 2011

On December 16, the Saudi city of Medina witnessed severe clashes between Sunnis and Shiites at the time of the annual Ashura gathering, when Shiites commemorate the martyrdom of Husayn, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.

Wahhabism, the leading stream of Islam in Sunni Saudi Arabia, is extremely anti-Shiite, since certain Shiite practices conflict with Wahhabi Islamic practice. Shiites, who constitute 10-15 percent of the Saudi population, have suffered greatly under Saudi rule. Depredations have included killings, arbitrary arrests, job discrimination, and forbidding of their religious ceremonies.

With Shiite Iran on the cusp of nuclear arms, and with demonstrated victories by Iran's proxies in Iraq, Lebanon, and the Gaza Strip, the Saudi rulers cannot afford to be seen coddling local Shiites. Saudi Sunnis expect their leaders to defend the honor and position of the Sunni majority within and without Saudi Arabia, lest Shiite victories generate a sea change and reverse the age-old dominance of the Sunni sect of Islam.

The Shiites are not numerous enough to constitute a threat to the regime, but they do constitute an actual and potential arm of Iranian influence.

The sense is that if King Abdullah had his way, he would end discrimination and fully integrate the Saudi Shiites. But the king faces an ongoing dilemma: if he appeases the Shiites, he risks the wrath of Wahhabi extremists and the religious establishment; if he doesn't, the Shiites will remain a thorn in his side.

Continue reading Joshua Teitelbaum at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs

(photo credit: mitopencourseware)