The Shiite Question in Saudi Arabia
19 Sep 2005
Saudi Arabia should act decisively to defuse rising sectarian tensions. King Abdullah, who has shown a willingness to tackle this issue in the past, has the opportunity to take the required steps.
The Shiite Question in Saudi Arabia,* the latest report from the International Crisis Group, says the Kingdom must take action to extend rights and protections for the Shiite minority in order to prevent frustration escalating into violence. While the King has shown sympathy for the Shiite minority, reforms strengthening their rights will require a long-term investment and commitment to social and political integration.
"This is an important test for King Abdullah", says Toby Craig Jones, Crisis Group Analyst for the Gulf. "The potential for instability will continue to grow unless he reins in anti-Shiite hostility".
As a result of the war in Iraq, Sunni-Shiite distrust has deepened. Like their Iraqi co-religionists, many Saudi Shiites have intensified their push for religious freedoms and better representation in official positions. For their part, Sunnis have deepened their suspicions, and a rising number of jihadi militants have taken their cause to Iraq, fuelled by their opposition to U.S. policy and by the Shiites' increased role. Hundreds of battle-tested Saudi mujahidin will likely return to the Kingdom in search of a new battlefield - like their predecessors from Afghanistan - and threaten Western and government targets as well as the Shiite minority.
To avert a crisis, Saudi Arabia should increase Shiite representation in government, lift remaining restrictions on their religious rituals, encourage tolerance in mosques and schools, and muzzle statements and activities that incite violence against them.
In light of growing suspicion of Western hostility towards Islam, however, the U.S. and the EU would do well to temper their public messages on these issues and focus on broader reform, including expanding the rights and political participation of all Saudis.
The Kingdom has an urgent challenge, but also a new opportunity. The 11 September 2001 attacks and al-Qaeda's subsequent terror campaign have had the opposite effect of the war in Iraq: they have prompted non-violent Islamists and reformers, both Sunni and Shiite, to join together and call for political and religious changes.
"Saudi Arabia should counter rising militancy in the Kingdom and across its borders by taking advantage of this internal rapprochement", said Robert Malley, Director of Crisis Group's Middle East Program. "The strongest guarantee of stability in the Kingdom is to offer alternatives to extremism".