November 1, 2014

Middle East: Prophet's Malediction 2

Part 2. Shiism in Wahhabi Saudia

Saudi Arabia is religiously heterogeneous. Yes, it is a Sunni country, but it has many supporters of Sufi tariqas and followers of other law schools of Sunnism. That is why King Abdullah in February 2009, reformed the High Council of Ulemas, into which were introduced representatives of non-Hanbalite Madhhabs.

There are many Shiite Muslims in the Kingdom. How many exactly — it is hard to say, as the national statistics does not take into account religious affiliation of citizens of the Kingdom, showing only the fact that they all are Muslims. We may accept the most common figure — 10 % of the total number of Saudi citizens. According to the results of the 2010 census, the population was just over 28 million, of which nearly 19.5 million were indigenous Saudis. In this case, the share of the Shiite population of KSA does not exceed 1 million 950 thousand. This was confirmed in 2010 by the prominent Saudi Shia scholar Sheikh Hassan Al-Saffar, who estimated the number of Saudi Shiites in the range of 1.5 to 1.8 million people.

In their turn, the Shiites are not homogeneous. In the province of Sanaa bordering on Yemen, according to Sheikh Al-Saffar, there are about 500 thousand Ismailis. A large Shiite community is concentrated in Medina. By the way, the Prophet, to escape persecution, September 24, 622 fled from Mecca to Medina and asked there for help and protection.

Eastern Province KSA Shiites of the Eastern Province of KSA is compactly concentrated in oases settlements of Al-Hasa and Al-Qatif, Dammam, Al-Khobar and Hofuf and is represented by the sect of “Ithna 'Ashariyah” — followers of the twelve Imams.

This sect prevails in Iran and makes the majority of the population of Bahrain, Iraq, and Kuwait.

Specificity of the Eastern Province, branching of ties of its Shiite population with coreligionists in neighboring countries (spiritual leaders of Saudi “Ithna 'Ashariyah” — scholars of the Iraqi Al-Najaf and Iranian Qom), its presence in the environment of the developed educated and entrepreneurial class — all this suggests that the Shiite question in relation to Saudi Arabia regards first of all this province. At this, in this province are produced 98 %of Saudi Arabia's hydrocarbons and from there are exported 12 % and 2/3 of all oil imported by, respectively, the United States and Japan. Industrial production of the Eastern Province provides 90 % of external revenues of the country. The importance of this administrative unit, in terms of both, the economy and national security, is exclusive.

Industrial production of the Eastern Province provides 90 % of countries’ foreign income
Industrial production of the Eastern Province provides 90 % of countries’ foreign income

Objectively the Saudi state needed a Wahhabi interpretation of the Hanbalite Madhhab because the latter was adding uniformity to the society, created as a result of the military expansion, becoming (due to the tradition of the alliance between the ruling Al Saud family and descendants of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab Al Al-Sheikh heading the numerous corps of theologists) a most affordable tool for centralization of the newly established religious and political formation — the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The forced removal of actual or potential problems, uncompromising eradication of separatism and “washout” of ethnic and religious memory extended not only to Shiites, but in the Eastern Province emerged the main sore point of the intra- Saudi policy.

The accelerated development of the oil industry, which began in the late 1940s, was rapidly changing the Saudi society. The Shia of the Eastern Province were no exception to this process. In search of a decent life, former farmers (who, unlike Bedouins, had no prejudice against manual labor) rushed to the emerging oil cities — Dammam, Dhahran, Al-Khobar and Ras Tanura. In the late 1970s, they already accounted for more than half of the Saudi labor force in enterprises of the “Arabian American Oil Company” (ARAMCO). In the early 1980s, the company was bought out by the government, becoming Saudi ARAMCO.

Shiites and strategic oil reserves of the region

Shiites and strategic oil reserves of the region

The company was building schools for workers, encouraging the natives to sign contracts for the provision of long-term commercial services, helping the most talented professionals enter Saudi and foreign technical schools. In the 1980s, half of the students at the College of Oil and Natural Resources (established in 1963, now King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals) in Dhahran was represented by Shiites, like most students of the open in 1975 and specializing in teaching of modern agriculture, medicine, veterinary and computer technologies King Faisal University in Dammam and Hofuf. In the Eastern Province were formed Shiite intellectuals and working class.

However, the transformation of the Shiite community has not led people from the Shia to enhancing their role in life of the state. Shiite entrepreneurship was limited to lower stages of business. In higher echelons dominated exclusively Sunni. In schools and universities there were no teachers-Shiites. Shiite religious ceremonies were banned. Before Shiite youth were closed doors to the service in the army, police and state security agencies. Thus, Shiites, making 10 % of the population of the country and by 90 % replenishing its budget, remained second-class citizens, subjected to religious and social discrimination.

But the proportion of Shia increased in the emerging in 1960s-1970s clandestine political Islamist organizations of “Nasserist” or “Ba'athist” wing was significant.

The defeat of Egypt and Syria in the June 1967 war changed the situation. The attractiveness of the ideas of pan-Arabism had fallen; their place was taken by politicized religion, the importance of which was strengthened by the triumph of the Islamic Revolution in Iran.

The development of this process was determined by changes in the Saudi Shia community itself. In the 1970s there was a group of well-educated Shiite theologians, led by Sheikh Al-Saffar. They studied in Al-Najaf (Iraq), Qom (Iran), and after 1974 in Kuwait City, where a prominent Shiite cleric from Karbala Mohammed al-Husseini al-Shirazi created his own religious school. In 1977, members of the group returned to Saudi Arabia as mentors of their co-religionists in the Eastern Province. And two years later, in November 1979, the development of oil and oil towns of the Eastern Province became the scene of mass students and workers' protests. In November of the following year excitement covered all areas of compact settlement of Shiites, where for the first time were held funeral processions on the day of Ashura (one of the main Shiite religious rites). Opposition to them was difficult — formations of the state security services and the army suppressed the activity of Wahhabi terrorists who on the same days ceased the Great Mosque of Mecca.

Participants of the November unrest came with anti-American and anti-government slogans, demanding from the authorities to support the Iranian revolution and to cut off oil supplies to the United States, having put forward the slogan of creation of the Islamic Republic of El Hasa. Completion of the operation to liberate Mecca Great Mosque allowed to suppress Shiites' meetings in the Eastern Province too. The result of the unrest was formation of Shiite religious and political organizations, despite the fact that most of the members of, Sheikh Al-Saffar's group had to emigrate (originally to Iran and then to Syria and the United Kingdom). Explaining later the reasons for his leaving Tehran, Sheikh Al-Saffar pointed out that the course, led by the Iranian authorities against Shiite communities in the Gulf countries, condemned him and his comrades to “the role of conductors of the Iranian regional influence” (that is how in reality was carried out the “export of the Islamic Revolution”, the theory of which was developed by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah R.Khomeini).

Confessional map of the Middle East
Confessional map of the Middle East

In 1981, thanks to Sheikh Al-Saffar's efforts, there emerged the Organization for the Islamic Revolution in the Arabian Peninsula (OIRAP). The status of expatriates did not interfere with Sheikh and his supporters' winning new positions among their co-religionists in the homeland — students of the University of Petroleum and Minerals and oil workers, urging them to oppose the Sunni regime.

The period of confrontation did not last long. The opposition emigrants realized that the demographic reality of the province (where the Shia are minority) did not allow to hope for a success of a long-term revolutionary violence. The antigovernment level of their propaganda was decreasing. They gave up separatism and reduced their goals to gaining religious, political and social equality. The course and outcome of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) proved to Shiite activists that Iran is far from the fight for “liberation” of their co-religionists in the Arab states of the Gulf. But it was not just the matter of a regional factor.

There was also an important intra-Saudi factor of OIRAP's giving up the policy of the revolution. Having appointed of Prince Ahmed bin Abdul Aziz as the Governor of the Eastern Province, the Saudi political establishment proclaimed the beginning of a “new era” regarding its Shiite community. Place of previous administrators — people from Najd — were taken by technocrats-Shiites, graduates from both leading universities of the region. Shiites were introduced into the management of industrial complexes that were being built — the port and oil refinery in Jubayl being the most striking examples. Procession on the day of Ashura, although limited to urban neighborhoods, had become part of everyday life, despite the strong opposition of Wahhabi clerics. During the first half of the 1980s into the development of the Eastern Province, was invested at least 1 billion US dollars. There appeared new schools and hospitals, housing was actively developed.

King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz, having met in 1993 in Jeddah with the arrived in Saudi Arabia Sheikh Al-Saffar's associates, announced an amnesty for all those arrested members of the November riots of 1979, on the return to emigrants of Saudi citizenship and the possibility of their unhindered return, confirming giving up the practice of discrimination, including the removal of anti-Shia texts from Saudi school textbooks.

In the first half of the 1990s, Sheikh Al-Saffar returned to Saudi Arabia, and OIRAP was gently transformed into an Islamic Reform Movement (IRM).

The course of majority of the Shiite religious and political elite to reconcile with the state had also other aspects. In 1987, part of the former adherents of OIRAP formed a new organization — “Saudi Hezbollah”, which remained on positions of rigid uncompromising struggle against the “satanic Saudi state”. Its focus on Iran is undeniable — members of the “Saudi Hezbollah” positioned themselves as a movement of “supporters of the line of Imam Khomeini”. Its most famous action was the attack in June 1996, on the American military complex in Al-Khobar, where 90 people were killed and 350 people were injured.

Further developments proved that the line of the “Saudi Hezbollah” to confrontation with the state is inefficient. In the group, there were splits, moderate members of the organization went over to the side of Sheikh Al-Saffar. However, this did not contribute to the consolidation of Shiite activists. In their ranks there appeared “independent”, who refused to join a particular political wing.

Today the Shiite issue in Saudi Arabia is part of crucial reforms, the necessity of which the country faces. Efforts of King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz who came to power in 2005, helped reduce the level of marginality of the Shiite minority. His course of “cautious openness” has attracted Shiite intellectuals to implementation of programs of “national dialogue”, which is accompanied by contacts of theologians of both branches of Islam. This course has extended to the Shiite religious leaders the system of nationwide oath.

Representatives of the Shiite community have been introduced to the Advisory Board and executive bodies of power. They dominate in municipal councils of Shiite settlements, PMs of which they became, despite the objections of the “Saudi Hezbollah” and Sheikh An-Nimr, during the elections of 2005 and 2012.

Within the framework of this course, on the development of the Eastern Province continue to be allocated substantial budgetary resources. However, these changes are partial, and their slow pace cannot remove the problem of discrimination — the doors to the army, police and state security services remain closed for Shiites, anti-Shiite fatwas of Wahhabi theologians, as well as limitations of religious freedom — are still the reality today.

It should also be noted that the discontent in the country increases among the privileged Sunni population too. About every third man in the Kingdom is jobless (women usually do not work at all). Free medicine, communal services, etc are becoming things of the past. The state has begun mass privatization of the social sphere.

The oil paradise is collapsing — to maintain the population that has grown from 7 million in 1974 to almost 30 million in 2014 by virtue of one “pipe” is not possible; despite huge oil revenues, the Kingdom lives on borrowed money — the domestic debt is about 90 % of GDP. At this, the subjects of the Kingdom already with much less loyalty look at the absolutist regime and huge social stratification.

Who is the main in the region?

We have already written about the fundamental dispute of monarchs of the Gulf States with a relatively young and ambitious Islamic Republic of Iran on the primacy in this region (see “Persian Gulf monarchies”). Today, there are numerous signs of the growing confrontation in the Persian Gulf in particular, and in the Greater Middle East in general.

On the one side of the partition line are Iran and its ally Syria. On the other is a very heterogeneous coalition — the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC) — a block of conservative monarchies, consisting of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman. The monarchical Jordan adjoins them. All of them are supported by the United States, Britain and France. Israel is traditionally very anti-Iranian. In this there are inner contradictions, but they all pale into insignificance before the “Iranian threat”. Elites of the GCC are extremely concerned about the nuclear program and general rise of Iran as well as the potential possibility of “Shiite offensive”.

Indeed, Iran is developing rapidly. Thus, the production of cars in the country is more than half a million a year, shipbuilding and aircraft industries are developing dynamically, and Iran is the 18th largest producer of steel. Science is also developing quite actively — the Persians have succeeded in research on memristors (prospective cells of memory), have independently launched three spacecrafts.

Accordingly, the Iranian defense industry is not sitting on its hands either — it is still considerably lagging behind the key manufacturers of weapons in terms of technologies, but is doing its best to reduce this gap. The Islamic Republic has declared its readiness to build aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines (taking into consideration the Chinese help, this can be very real) and has started building its own destroyers. Iranian Naval Forces, even in their current state, have been successfully located in the world's oceans and take part in international operations to combat piracy. In other words, Iran is increasingly becoming a major industrial and military power.

At this, firstly, the Islamic Republic has many territorial disputes with its neighbors. Tehran considers Bahrain a province, illegally seized by the British, which, in fact, it is.


Bahrain, the full official name — Kingdom of Bahrain (Arabic: مملكة البحرين‎‎ — Mamlyaka al-Bahrain) is an insular state in the eponymous archipelago in the Persian Gulf in South-West Asia, the smallest Arab state. Bahrain occupies three relatively large and many small islands 16 km east of the coast of Saudi Arabia, and is connected to it by a road bridge.

In the 3rd millennium BC, in the country was an advanced civilization, for which were typical fortified settlements. The ancient state, which bore the name of Dilmun, was a large center of maritime trade, connecting the Sumerians and other peoples of Mesopotamia with the peoples of the Indus Valley.

From the 17th century, Bahrain was the part of Iran, the reign of the Safavid dynasty. In 1780, Bahrain declared its independence, in 1871, Great Britain established a protectorate over it, at its territory was created a large British military base. In 1968, Bahrain together with Qatar and the Trucial Oman, announces creation of the Federation of Arab Gulf principalities. August 14, 1971 Bahrain was granted independence. The government of Iran considers Bahrain an illegally occupied territory of Iran.

At the territory of the Kingdom is situated the main operating base of the fifth Fleet of the US Navy in Dzhuffeyr, near Manama.

Three small but strategically crucial islands (Abu Musa, Greater and Lesser Tunbs) blocking the exit from the Gulf, belong to Iran, which is disputed by the UAE.

There are also disputes over islands and oil fields with Kuwait.


Secondly, the development of Iran stimulates activity of the traditionally discriminated Shiite minority in the Middle East. Meanwhile, almost all GCC countries have significant Shiite communities:

  • 75 % in Bahrain;
  • 30-45 % in Kuwait;
  • 15-20 % in the UAE;
  • 10 % in Qatar;
  • about 10 % in KSA.

As a consequence, the growth of Iranian influence causes panic among leaders of the Gulf countries. Back in 2004, King Abdullah II of Jordan formulated the concept of the Shiite Crescent — the area from Lebanon to Bahrain, where the Shiites' dominance under the patronage of Iran can become reality. Indeed, a side effect of the “Arab Spring” was a sharp intensification of the activity of the Shiites almost in the entire Arabian Peninsula.

Shiite Crescent
Shiite Crescent.King Abdullah II of Jordan framed "Shiite Crescent”  - "Hilal als Sch'ii" as a thesis  in 2004

Thus, in 2011, protests of Shiites began in Bahrain, but were harshly suppressed by the troops of the KSA, who arrived to help the King of Bahrain. As a result, 84 people were killed and over 5 thousand were injured. Mass demonstrations continued in 2012 — on March 9, 100 thousand people took to the streets (the population of the country is 1.23 million people).

Meanwhile, Tehran is making significant efforts to become a center of attraction not only for the Shiites. In 2010, Syrian President Ahmadinejad during Friday prayers at a Sunni mosque said that for him, Islam is one, and he sees no difference between Sunnis and Shiites. The potential of Iran's influence on the Sunni majority, and even on non-Muslim minorities of the Gulf, is really quite great. The Islamic Republic, acting as a conduit of traditional Islamic values, manages to combine them with comparatively democratic regime and manifestation of tolerance towards national minorities.

Needless to speak about ethnocracy in Iran: the religious leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei is Azerbaijani, as are a good third of the political elite, former President Ahmadinejad is Talysh. The life of “traditional” religious minorities (Christians of neo-orthodox wing, Zoroastrians and Jews) in Iran is far from perfect, but can't be even compared with the same Saudi Arabia.

Finally, unlike the mired in archaic monarchies, Iran offers an acceptable to the conservative Islamic world scheme of social modernization. For example, Ahmadinejad lobbied for the strictness of morals and gender segregation — but that did not stop him from trying to introduce three women into the government, though, the Majlis (Parliament) has approved of only one.

So, the Shiite Iran looks a more attractive leader of the Islamic world than the Wahhabi Qatar or Saudi Arabia. At this, interests of monarchies and those of the Islamic Republic clash on the entire space of the Middle East. For example, in Yemen, the Saudi army clashed with the backed by Tehran Shiite-Zaidis, in Lebanon, Iran supports “Hezbollah” as opposed to the collaborating with Al-Saud official government, in Palestine it supports Hamas against the Fatah backed by Saudis. Finally, the key field for confrontation between Saudi, Qatar, and Iran has become Syria with its pro-Iranian Shiite (Alawite) regime.

It is not surprising that the documents published by WikiLeaks, show a going wild degree of hatred to Iran on the part of Arab elites of the Gulf. Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi (UAE), Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan called the war “a much better alternative in comparison with the long-term effects due to Iran's possession of nuclear weapons". Saudi King Abdullah has repeatedly demanded to attack Iran to “cut off the head of the snake”. Similar sentiments flourished in Bahrain, Jordan and Egypt.

The armed forces of Saudi Arabia since 1990 have increased by halfA concrete expression of these sentiments has become the rapidly unwinding arms race. The armed forces of Saudi Arabia since 1990 have increased by half — to 224 thousand people, the number of tanks has increased from 700 to 1055. Saudi Arabia has announced its desire to increase the already existing order for 270-300 German tanks “Leopard 2” and to bring their total number up to 600-800 units, paying 10 billion US dollars. Thus, the Saudis are going to almost double their tank fleet and almost triple the number of modern combat vehicles.

The Air Force is armed with modern planes-heavy fighters and fighter-bombers F-15, Eurofighter Typhoon. In December 2010 an agreement was signed with the United States in the amount of 60 billion US dollars, providing for the purchase of new combat aircrafts, including 72 combat helicopters AH-64D Apache, 72 multipurpose helicopters UH-60M Black Hawk, 12 light helicopters MD-530F, as well as ammunition and communications equipment.

The Air Defense system is also being modernized, for example, “Patriots” will be improved to the level of the PAC-3. Besides, the second program of building up the Navy of the Saudi Arabia provides for costs of 23 billion US dollars, and this figure may be revised explicitly towards its increase. Riyadh plans to buy new surface ships, 6-8 submarines, to modernize the Marine Corps.

Finally, of particular interest are the Saudi's attempts to get their hands on weapons of mass destruction. Riyadh already has chemical weapons, and in 2009 the Saudis said they would also have nuclear weapons. These are not empty words — the Kingdom sponsored Pakistan's nuclear program.

Even if we ignore the non-conventional weapons, it is clear that Riyadh is preparing for operations outside his borders. Building up of the tank fleet and army aviation points to the future strengthening of ground forces. Obviously, here is meant Yemen — but not in the first place. First of all, it is a signal to Syria and Iran.

Thus, the events of the last couple of years, the “Arab Spring”, the war in Syria have set in motion forces that can reshape the entire Middle East, exacerbated the already bloody centuries-old feud between Sunnis and Shiites, creating and engaging in a maelstrom new forces. The concept of uniting the oppressed (mustazafin), launched by Imam Khomeini, after the victory of the Islamic Revolution, received a new impetus.

Shiites are waiting for the arrival of the hidden Imam Mahdi...