Shias in Saudi Arabia and the Question of Identity

Saudi Shia are enduring a difficult and critical period in their relation with their national surrounding following the execution of Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr along with others who participated in the protests/riots that broke out in villages within Al-Qatif region. These riots originally started after Al-Baqi’ incidents but continued sporadically until it reached its peak with the Arab Spring.

Also by implicating the Saudi Shia’s name in the current political tension between the government of Iran and Saudi Arabia contributes towards the feeling of unease experienced by the Shia community as it takes away their local demands to end the discrimination against them.

This special Shia identity as seen by the Shia themselves as well as others, falls into the heart of this troubled relation between the Shia and their national surroundings. Therefore it is of vital importance to understand this relation in its national drive, and the relation between the individual Shia identities with its national collective identity.

Saudi Identity

The wave of terrorist attacks carried out by Al-Qaeda followers on civil and governmental targets in Saudi Arabia since 2003 has always been accompanied with calls to isolate this ideology and defeat it intellectually.

One of the methods that was used to achieve this aim was focusing and concentrating on the meaning of homeland. This was enhanced by the launch of a series of national dialogue conferences that began its first event in 2003 with the participation of more than 30 personalities from various sects and religious ideologies. Plus the introduction of national citizenship education as part of the school curriculum and declaring a national day as public holiday from September 2005.

These symbolic acts among others raised the hope that they would be followed by a wider political reform program and constructing a better understanding of homeland that would include the whole population of Saudi Arabia in all its different sects and beliefs. This has yet to be accomplished.


The traditional and ultra conservative Salafi group opposed some of the symbolic steps that have been taken by the government in its effort to highlight the meaning of homeland in a geopolitical context that contains factors in building a unified population culturally and religiously.

There have been calls on TV programs and written fatwas issued by religious scholars that forbids celebrating the national day under various headings; such as the rule that one can only celebrate Eid-al-Fitr and Eid-al-Adha, regarding any other annual celebration is nothing but an act of heresy. 

These fatwas have caused an internal reaction within the same group of religious scholars as they discussed the meaning of the forbidden heresy which is in fact limited to worshipping and not a cultural event such as the homeland national day, therefore it seems this is an attempt to prevent the celebration by demonising it.

The ultra-conservative Salafi Party objection also included the necessity of ensuring no other sects or groups are put ahead of the wider Islamic Ummah, and warned of the danger of copying infidels. The national dialogue conference had its fair share of disturbances too as it did not pass smoothly.

The first round of the National Dialogue, which was held in June 2003 focused on the importance of national unity and the fight against extremism and militancy and to limit/eradicate any excuses that lead to such actions. There was also a special focus on intellectual diversity among the segments of society. These meetings took place, at a time when Saudi Arabia has witnessed several terrorist acts, and these meeting are a way to confirm the acceptance of cultural and religious plurality that already exists in the Saudi society which are vital in alleviating intolerance and establishing the norm of dialogue and acceptance of others that are different.

In a book entitled ” To be a Shia in Saudi Arabia, ” the author Dr Tawfik Al-Saif , a researcher in the affairs of political Islam and a Shia political activists, claims that the Saudi society appeared ” in this conference to be divided between the two poles , the official Salafist party on the one side and the rest of the Saudis at the other end .” [1]

The traditionalists in the Salafist movement rejected the claims of injustice. They also rejected the calls for the need of multiculturalism, because, according to their view, accepting and subordinating to such request would give recognition to a right that may exist outside the Salafi framework and this goes against the fundamental approach to the traditional Salafi basic teachings. [1]

The proceedings of the National Dialogue sessions was not published by the media, plus the government remained its honourable image by organising the National Dialogue although it did not take part, which some regarded as negative aspect that made the initiative incomplete. 

In an article published in the Al-Etihad Emirati newspaper written by Dr. Khalid al-Dakhil, a political science professor, he stated that “the Government is waiting for the other parties in the dialogue to exercise their role in a clear and direct manner. For this reason, it adopted the initiative to embrace the idea of dialogue, and establishing the King Abdul Aziz Centre for National Dialogue. A better approach by government who established such initiative would have been partaking directly in the dialogue which would have been the most expressive sign of the spirit of this initiative; dialogue of clarity and transparency. ” [2]

National identity and minorities

The Shia’s desire to protect their own identity that is reflected in the practice of their own doctrine rituals, and the expression of religious views, and the ability to build houses of worship, as well as a guaranteed equal treatment with the rest of the Saudis in term of access to education and jobs and to enjoy their fair share of the various state resources. All these desires and demands represented the heart of the problems that marred their relationship with government in power and religious institution in the country.

Toby Matthiesen, a researcher in political science at Oxford University states in an academic article entitled “Shiʿi Historians in a Wahhabi State: Identity Entrepreneurs and the Politics of Local Historiography in Saudi Arabia” that they endured discrimination practiced by the state against them, including the exclusion of their own history of the official historical narrative. This discrimination pushed them to join the opposition movements, both leftist and nationalist, in the fifties and sixties of the last century and Islamic movements in the seventies. [3]

Later, a political settlement that was led by one of the faction of political Shia Islam and the Government of King Fahd in 1993 addressed many of the points of tension in the relationship between the Government and the Shia community. Some of these tension points is the Shia’s intention to solidify their self-identity which they are trying to preserve which includes; the freedom to build mosques, publish Shia-related books, founding local scientific seminaries (Hawza) and putting an end to discrimination in education, jobs and some of the decisions that are taken in the name of political security, but they seem to have stopped their requirements there and did not ask or push for a broader political reforms.

This settlement created channels of communication that played a role in solving many of the disputed issues and the experience led the Shia community to work with the Government. This is represented clearly in the “Partners in the Homeland,” speech/document that was submitted to the Crown Prince at the time, Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz in April 2003, but these efforts have stalled for numerous reasons, some of which have been addressed by Dr. Al-Seif s in his book that was mentioned earlier, he said that the “relationship between both parties is filled with distrust and suspicions and the Government’s lack of a clear strategy to eliminate sectarian discrimination that has allowed the rise of some fanatic individuals within both side of the administration or giving a chance for some to poison the atmosphere between now and then, and the poor unified political representation of Saudi Shia”. [1]

He added that “Since early 2008 it appeared that the Government had already decided to ignore the demands of the Shias, sustaining what has been achieved.” [1] 

Sub identities

In the awakening of the Arab Spring, several articles were published by Arab press warning of the rise of sub-identities at the expense of the national identity, as if the two concepts are opposite to one another.

The national identity in these writings is in fact limited identity that does not represent everyone and remains unchanged. In my personal view, the ideal image of identity must give way to all spectrums of society to fully express their own identities to reflect all the national colours of the spectrum. National identity is not disrespectful to the sub-identities, but one that combines and unites them.

Social researchers suggest that minorities’ focus on its identity is a method of self-defence when exposed to discrimination. This has been highlighted clearly in the writings of Saudi historians, who have been active since the eighties of the last century in documenting the history of the Eastern region of Saudi Arabia. According to Toby Matthiesen the focus on several elements of the Shia identity in Saudi Arabia, one must pay attention to their heritage, be aware of all threats, resist foreign intervention and occupation, meaning the so-called golden age, and finally focus on common characteristics among members of the community.

Toby Matthiesen asserts that what he calls the pioneers of identity are important for the formulation of collective identity, especially in the case of ignoring the state and opposing viewpoints in history. These pioneers will produce a historical context that can be used by interested groups to put political demands and to emphasise a collective and plural frameworks. [3] 

The diffusion of the current tension is the responsibility of all related parties, including the Government, which can play a vital role through a political initiative in eliminating fears that had prompted supporters of dialogue and all their efforts into a stand still.


[1] Tawfiq Al-Saif, to be a Shia in Saudi Arabia, 2013

[2] Khalid al-Dakhil, The Speech of Prince Abdullah: The government is a party in the dialogue but above other parties, 2004.

[3] Toby Mathesen, Shiʿi Historians in a Wahhabi State: Identity Entrepreneurs and the Politics of Local Historiography in Saudi Arabia, 2015
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