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Saudi Arabia's Dilemma

The Shia-Sunni fight in Saudi Arabia is going to become uglier as time goes on, writes Dr Bhaskar Dasgupta.

india Updated: Sep 09, 2005 18:48 IST
Dr Bhaskar Dasgupta
Dr Bhaskar Dasgupta

According to one estimate, Saudi Arabia seems to be supplying up to 60% of all the militants in Iraq. Most of these people are the foot soldiers and are involved in attacks, suicide bombing or assassinations. A further analysis of the meagre data provides some information that most of these volunteers are involved in the pointy end of the wedge, being asked to drive a car bomb into a tank or going to embrace a petrol tanker and blow themselves up. Needless to say, when one looks at this from the perspective of the royals of Saudi Arabia, it is not a pretty sight at all. I can only sympathise with the royals who are dammed if they do and dammed if they don’t. Let us take a quick roundup of this Saudi Hobson’s choice.

There are many strands to this knot. The first strand is the Shia-Sunni tension within Saudi Arabia itself, driven significantly by the state Wahhabi/Salafi religious establishment. The second strand is the impact of the Iranian Shia revolution thirty years ago and which seems to be encroaching into territories ever closer to Saudi Arabia. The third strand is the reaction to the fact that the Saudi Royals are not very well liked by a yet still small but rather significant proportion of the commoners. If the royals are worried about their survival on the throne of Ibn-Saud, then they have to navigate many shoals, and the above three strands are deeply entwined. One of the results of this navigation is the rise of Saudi’s who are flooding into Iraq as suicide bombers and such like.

The Saudi Shia segment is estimated to be between 5 and 20% of the population and concentrated in the Eastern Province of the country, which holds the oil. The state sect being Wahhabism, the Shia practises of Ashura mourning, the differences in prayers, marriage customs, worshipping at the graves of holy men, etc. are anathema to the state religious establishment. For anybody who has seen the Shia way of life as in India, they will agree that “quiet and discreet” it is certainly not. The Saudi Shia are forbidden all but the most discreet of the rituals. They are not allowed to build their own mosques and most of what they have dates back to the Turkish times and are privately constructed and maintained.

Shia are rarely found in the military, police, bureaucracy, and what passes for politics in Saudi Arabia. Their main source of employment and wealth seem to be working in lower ranks of Saudi Aramco, the government owned oil firm. This state of affairs showed up in lots of labour disputes in the 1950’s and 60’s. In 1979, after the Iranian Revolution and consequent Mecca incident, the Shia tried to celebrate Ashura publicly. The National Guard were called out, rioting started and lots of deaths occurred in the Eastern Province.

The Saudi government woke up and poured tons of money into the infrastructure and the situation improved to a certain extent, albeit not yet enough. According to an Amnesty International Report in 1990, Shia political activity was firmly squelched. In 1993, it flared up again and protracted negotiations took place between the Shia leaders and King Fahd. Strangely enough, it has been reported that most of the people arrested after the al-Khobar bombing were Shia. There are quite a lot of Shia clerics in jail such as Shaikh Saeed AlZuair, Shaikh Abdul Latif Mohamed Ali, Shaikh Saeed AlBahaar, Shaikh Habeeb Hamdah, Shaikah Mohamed AlKhayat, etc. and it is unclear as to what are the charges against them or when/if will they be released. Recently in 2000, there was police firing and riots in Najran, followed by a clampdown again on the Shia Ismaili’s. I don’t want to keep on banging on about it, but there you go, this gives you a bit of a picture of the constant tension between the Shia and the Saudi state.

This is one of the reasons why the local municipal elections saw a far higher Shia registration and turnout compared to the Sunni turnout numbers. Seems like the Saudi Royals were relatively sanguine about this, Prince Mansour bin Mutaab bin Abdulaziz, a grandson of the founding king who was responsible for setting up the municipal elections, said, "In any society, the minorities are motivated.", but the reaction of the common man was rather different. There was a spate of internet and mosque led messages for Sunni’s to go out and register so that they will not get out-voted.

What makes this situation worse for the Saudi’s are the shrill voices emanating from across the gulf in Iran, which is the second strand. The Khomeini revolution seriously worried the royals and they keep a beady eye out on them ever since. To keep Iran tied down, the Saudi Royal family spent millions on Saddam Hussein (mind you, along with the western powers) to keep the Shia Iranians in check, worried about their war with Iraq and stay out of doing mischief in the other countries. Iran’s propensity to go poking into countries with Shia populations is well known, whether it be Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan or Afghanistan. This is all handled under the rubric of anti-Zionist, anti-USA (the great Satan – there is a very interesting theological issue there as the concept of Satan as Christians know it doesn’t really exist in Islam) and while understated it is used to propagate the Shia message. Hence the nervousness of the Saudi Royals to any kind of Islamic revolution.

If one looks at the situation in Iraq, the southern part of the country is majority Shia and has a large number of Shia shrines and mosques such as the Imam Ali Mosque, the seminaries and madrassah’s in Najaf and Karbala etc. The Iranian access to these Iraqi places of worship was necessarily curtailed during the “warm and enlightened” rather secular rule of Saddam Hussein. Once Saddam dived down his hole (literally), the Iranians flooded across to visit these holy places. While all this was happening with the ordinary people, the senior level contacts increased dramatically between the Shia leaders of Iraq and Iran. To top it all, the Shia (along with the Kurds) cooperated fully with the US forces. Now if you were a Saudi royal or a Sunni religious figure, you will look upon these developments with a very jaundiced eye. A functional democracy? A Shia majority regime next door? A base for western forces next door? Shock! Horror! Gasp!

As we know, the Iraqi Sunni are the major participants in the insurgency and Saudi youth have been flooding across to Iraq to fight the infidels (Christian western forces) and the apostates (the Shia). Have a look at to keep an eye out on the Saudi element in Iraq. Here are some url’s for you to check, which talk about how the Sunni insurgents talk about the two parties. and

Now the third strand which is the Saudi royals unpopularity with a certain section of their own population. The presence of a large, unemployed, disaffected youth, being raised in that pressure cooker situation of Saudi means that normal-pursuit-of-happiness promoting activities are not really available or accepted. Hence a strong dose of (dare I say) ‘evangelical’ religion. The royals are basically also in the bad books of the jehadi’s because of their corruption, their inability to follow Islamic injunctions, lack of employment opportunities (well, those jobs which pay a lot and don’t ask much), support for the west, their temerity to invite the infidels to defend the holy land, etc. etc. A common tactic, when faced with internal revolt, is to direct the disaffected youth’s energies elsewhere, the big example being Afghanistan. Unfortunately, as Pakistan has found out to its utter discomfort, when you ride a tiger, and the tiger finishes its meal, it will come back for you. Hence the frequent news stories about terrorists being fought in Riyadh, Jeddah, Dhahran, etc. The USA, of course, prefers to downplay this aspect, just like it totally downplayed the Saudi aspect to the 9/11 terrorist event.

So here we are, big difficult hairy knot for the Saudi rulers to undo. Gordian knot it isn’t for them. According to ancient Greek legend, a peasant called Gordius arrived with his wife in a public square in an ox cart. As luck has it, an oracle had previously informed the people that their future king would come into town riding a wagon. Seeing Gordius, the people made him king. In gratitude, Gordius dedicated his ox cart to Zeus, tying it up at the square, with a highly intricate knot, the famous Gordian knot. Another oracle foretold that the person who untied the knot would rule all of Asia. The problem of untying the Gordian knot resisted all attempted trials, until Alexander the Great solved it by cutting through it with a sword.

Will the Saudis undo their knot or will they cut it through? Looking for an Alexander in the sands of Arabia may be difficult, but this is my prognosis, the Shia Sunni fight is going to become uglier as time goes on. A recent poll conducted by the infamous Muntada al-Ansar showed that a large number of militant Islamists are very much favouring the immediate expansion of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's current jihad in Iraq to the neighbouring Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Poll questions and answers included: - Do you support the jihad in Al-Jazeera [Saudi Arabia] at the current time? Or instead, following the [end of] the jihad in Iraq? 72% of them voted for "jihad in [Saudi Arabia] only28%) felt that the war in Iraq should supersede Al-Qaida operations in the Saudi Kingdom. The basic inability of some of the leaders of these two sects to even consider the validity or existence of each other means that they will spend their entire time trying to pinch each other’s resources and lives. In the midst, the Saudi royals are almost helpless, swinging in the wind, leading a knotted existence and faced with unpalatable Hobson’s choices. Be that as it may, they have made their bed and now they need to remake it. I advise them to look into the Quran and take advice from there. After all Allah states that: [13:11]: “… surely Allah does not change the condition of a people until they change their own condition …”

All this to be taken with a grain of salt!

(The opinion expressed herein are strictly the author's and do not reflect the positions, official or otherwise, of any firm or organisation, that the author is associated with at the present or has been in the past or may be in future. Dr Bhaskar Dasgupta, currently lives in the City of London and works there in various capacities in the Banking Sector.)

First Published: Sep 09, 2005 00:00 IST