Sectarian ferment has reached a fever pitch in Saudi Arabia. In a country where religious difference is typically met with antagonism, the kingdom’s 2 million Shi‘is today face even more alarming levels of hostility than usual. In February 2009, Saudi religious and security forces assaulted hundreds of Shi‘a pilgrims in Medina. In the months that followed, tensions between Shi‘is, the government, and prominent Sunni religious scholars has escalated. Adil al-Kalbani, called the Saudi Obama for being the first black imam at the Grand Mosque in Mecca and for having a reputation as a moderate, recently denounced Shi‘ism as a form of apostasy. Kalbani’s provocation is particularly disturbing, as it seems to signal the government’s willingness to condone an escalation of sectarian rancor. Some Shi‘a leaders have also fanned the flames of discord. One prominent cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, recently called for Shi‘is, most of whom live in the oil rich Eastern Province, to secede from the kingdom. He subsequently went into hiding to avoid a state manhunt.
The rapid poisoning of Shi‘i-Sunni relations in Saudi Arabia is alarming as is the government’s role in enabling the worst excesses of the religious establishment’s anti-Shi‘a tendencies. One of the most worrisome trends in recent months, however, is the radicalization of the Shi‘a community. The specter of Shi‘a militancy hangs over Saudi Arabia, as potentially violent groups of Shi‘is are agitating for confrontation. These include the reemergence of Hizballah in the Hijaz (Saudi Hizballah), the group many believe was responsible for the 1996 bombings in al-Khobar that killed 19 American military personnel.
Considering the depth of anti-Shi‘a sentiment historically and today in Saudi Arabia, the potential for Shi‘a radicalism is perhaps unsurprising. There have been violent trends in the Shi‘a community in the past, most notably during a mass rebellion in 1979. But, as Embattled in Arabia argues, the dominant political trend in the Shi‘a community has not been violent. For the most part, the community and its leaders have and continue to seek protection from religious extremism as well as social and political justice. They have promoted and sought accommodation rather than confrontation. This pursuit of integration and tolerance is under considerable pressure today. Under fire from the government and the religious forces in the kingdom, the conditions for a new Shi‘a militancy are taking shape. Embattled in Arabia examines the recent political history of Saudi Arabia’s Shi‘is, the terms of their relations with a hostile government, and the patterns of confrontation that have emerged in the past three decades.