‘Shiaphobia is nothing new for Saudi Arabia’
Prayer in Jamkaran Mosque, Fabien Dany
In 2004, anticipating the victory of the Shiite parties in the Iraqi parliamentary elections, King Abdullah of Jordan warned of a “Shiite crescent” stretching from Iran into Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon that would be dominated by Iran with its large majority of Shias and Shiite clerical leadership. The idea was picked up by the Saudi foreign minister, who described the US intervention in Iraq as a “handover of Iraq to Iran” since the US was supporting mainly Shiite groups there after overthrowing Saddam Hussein’s Sunni regime. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt claimed that Shias residing in Arab countries were more loyal to Iran than to their own governments. In an Op-Ed published in The Washington Post in November 2006, Nawaf Obaid, national security adviser to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, reflected on the urgent need to support Iraq’s Sunni minority, which had lost power after centuries of ruling over a Shiite majority comprising more than 65 percent of the Iraqi population.
Shiaphobia is nothing new for Saudi Arabia. The kingdom’s legitimacy derives from the Wahhabi sect of Islam, a Sunni Muslim group that attacked Shiite shrines in Iraq in the nineteenth century, and today systematically discriminates against Shias. We know from WikiLeaks that the US government regards the Saudi monarchy as a “critical financial support base” for al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and other terrorist groups. As well as attacking American and Indian targets, all these are violently anti-Shiite. We also know that the Saudi king venomously urged his US allies to cut off the “head of the snake” by attacking Shiite Iran.
In Bahrain democratic protests by Shias, who make up around 70 percent of the population, have continued in mainly Shiite villages near the capital, Manama, despite decades of suppression by the government, recently with the aid of Saudi troops and Sunni mercenaries from Jordan, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates. The Saudis, who openly sent their troops into Bahrain in March, are terrified that the unrest will spread to the oil-bearing Eastern Province where their own Shia minority resides. Human rights activists point out that Shias make up less than 20 percent of the kingdom’s workforce and less than 2 percent of its police and security forces.
Syria, just a few hundred kilometers across the desert to the west, presents an even more brutal picture. Here a civil war could be looming with defecting soldiers fighting back after protesters—many of them Sunnis who make up three quarters of the population—have been killed in the thousands by security forces dominated by a Shiite sectarian group, the Alawis, who have held power for more than four decades and are refusing to relinquish it, despite protests from neighboring Turkey and Jordan and suspension by the Arab League, of which Syria was a founding member. Earlier this year the European Union said that Iran had sent senior commanders of its Revolutionary Guards to help the Assad regime quell the unrest. In addition to recent reports of sectarian killings between Sunnis and Alawis in Homs and around the city of Hama, there are now real fears that a conflict comparable to Iraq’s is developing in Syria. Sunni minorities in Iran—in Khuzestan and Baluchistan—have also been subject to attacks, with dozens of protesters killed.
Some of those involved in the recent Arab uprisings claim that sectarian anxieties are being deliberately stoked by authoritarian regimes to maintain their grip on power. The Assad regime is widely accused of frightening Syria’s minorities—Christians, Kurds, Ismailis, Druzes—by raising the threat of a takeover by Sunni fundamentalists or takfiris—extreme Sunni groups who denounce others as “infidels.” The specter of sectarian violence can become self-fulfilling.