Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Saudi Arabia Still Treats Shiites as Second-Class Citizens

Mohammed bin Salman’s much-touted domestic reform agenda won’t succeed until it ensures Shiite religious freedom.

By , the founder of the LAMEDINA Institute in Los Angeles.  
Saudi Shiite Muslim worshippers during a mourning ritual in Qatif, Saudi Arabia, on Aug. 29, 2020.
Saudi Shiite Muslim worshippers during a mourning ritual in Qatif, Saudi Arabia, on Aug. 29, 2020. AFP via Getty Images

For decades, Saudi Arabia was seen as the most rigid Sunni Muslim country in the world. Tribal patriarchal norms mingled with the most literalist interpretation of Islam, generally known in the West as Wahhabism. Under the mantle of the religious ultra-conservatism that developed over decades within the Saudi religious establishment, women’s social emancipation and participation in public life were denied, and any public expression of non-Wahhabi beliefs and worship was banned. In particular, Saudi Arabia’s large Shiite Muslim minority was consistently stigmatized and treated as second-class citizens.

Saudi Arabia today is changing at warp speed as the winds of social reform sweep over large Saudi cities like Riyadh, Jeddah, and Dammam. It began as reform-by-decree closely managed by the hard-charging Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman—such as the 2017 ruling permitting women to drive and measures that greatly circumscribed the power of the country’s once-feared religious police. Although he is seen by many in the West as a headstrong and murderous autocrat, the crown prince is regarded by some at home as a reformist leader in tune with the aspirations of the country’s urban youth.

For decades, Saudi Arabia was seen as the most rigid Sunni Muslim country in the world. Tribal patriarchal norms mingled with the most literalist interpretation of Islam, generally known in the West as Wahhabism. Under the mantle of the religious ultra-conservatism that developed over decades within the Saudi religious establishment, women’s social emancipation and participation in public life were denied, and any public expression of non-Wahhabi beliefs and worship was banned. In particular, Saudi Arabia’s large Shiite Muslim minority was consistently stigmatized and treated as second-class citizens.

Saudi Arabia today is changing at warp speed as the winds of social reform sweep over large Saudi cities like Riyadh, Jeddah, and Dammam. It began as reform-by-decree closely managed by the hard-charging Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman—such as the 2017 ruling permitting women to drive and measures that greatly circumscribed the power of the country’s once-feared religious police. Although he is seen by many in the West as a headstrong and murderous autocrat, the crown prince is regarded by some at home as a reformist leader in tune with the aspirations of the country’s urban youth.

Mohammed bin Salman’s program of forced-pace modernization—known as Vision 2030—goes further than just social reforms. He is promising a return to “moderate Islam,” one that would also promote equality and coexistence rather than the sectarianism, hatred, and division that have long hampered social cohesion in Saudi Arabia and the wider Middle East over the last decades.

After decades of backing staunchly anti-Shiite beliefs and propaganda, Riyadh now has an unprecedented opportunity to shed its image of religious bigotry.

Whether the principle of equality in religion and the right of religious freedom apply to Saudi Shiites will be the litmus test for efforts to make the Saudi state neutral in matters of religion for the first time ever. If these efforts succeed, it will be a startling pivot for a state born out of religious ultra-conservatism—and a sign that the entire region may be fostering a religious culture more welcoming of diversity. Much will depend on how much religious freedom is going to be allowed under Vision 2030 and, finally, how much control the Saudi state will retain over the religious sphere and how the ultra-conservative religious establishment reacts.

After many decades of backing staunchly anti-Shiite beliefs and propaganda, from accusations of idolatry to the prohibition of Sunni-Shiite marriages and accusations of disloyalty in politics, Riyadh now has an unprecedented opportunity to shed its image of religious bigotry and intolerance and embrace religious pluralism and coexistence.


Saudi Shiites constitute the largest religious minority in the country—around 12 percent of the population. They live mainly in the Eastern Province, the heartland of Saudi Arabia’s petroleum industry. Shiites have endured discrimination, including marginalization and exclusion from certain public sector jobs, and have suffered from economic neglect by Saudi state institutions.

In turn, the country’s Shiites have adopted varying strategies of concealment, dissent, and accommodation with state authorities, trajectories common to minorities worldwide. More recently, and particularly after the 1979 Iranian revolution and uprisings in the predominantly Shiite areas of Qatif and Ahsa in the Eastern Province, Shiites have witnessed waves of repression whenever they have tried to express their voices, peacefully or otherwise.

As is the case elsewhere in the region, Shiite allegiance to the Saudi state has frequently been called into question. The specter of a pro-Iranian Shiite crescent stretching from Lebanon to the Persian Gulf has been a part of Saudi and Sunni Arab political discourse since 1979. In the last two decades, in particular, Saudi perceptions of the Iranian threat have been sharpened by Iran’s growing influence in neighboring post-Saddam Hussein Iraq as well as in Syria and Yemen since the uprisings in 2011.

Saudi Arabia still forbids the construction of Shiite mosques in areas other than the Eastern Province—which shamefully denies the fundamental right to pray collectively to hundreds of thousands of Shiites.

Saudi Shiites display a rich variety of opinions and local cultures. Furthermore, there is no Saudi Shiite religious establishment nor is there a single voice that can speak in the name of all Shiites. The absence of Shiite religious seminaries—which exist throughout Iraq and Iran—coupled with the interdiction, only recently lifted, of the publication and distribution of Shiite religious material within Saudi borders, has also hindered the formation of locally trained Shiite religious scholars. The transnational ties of Shiites with the highest religious authority in other countries—notably Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani (whom Pope Francis visited during his recent trip to Iraq)—have often been a pretext for accusing Saudi Shiites of disloyalty, even treason, toward their homeland.

Sheikh Hassan al-Saffar, the most prominent and iconic Saudi Shiite religious scholar, has courageously denounced these accusations. “Who doubts the loyalty of Catholics across the globe or, in the case of Islam, of Sunnis who follow the authority of the Egyptian Al-Azhar?” he asked in his recent book published not in Saudi Arabia but in Iraq. Saffar exhorts Arab governments, including his own, to promote policies in favor of the training of local Shiite religious jurists and scholars, who would then be capable of taking up the contemporary challenges of their own societies. As a religious leader, Saffar wants more religion in society, not less—but on an equal footing with Sunnism.

Now 63 years old, Saffar was a fiery revolutionary Islamist in the 1970s. By the early 1990s, however, he opted for accommodation with the Saudi state and the royal family in exchange for the lifting of restrictions on Shiite religious education and worship. Committed now to Sunni-Shiite rapprochement, he is one of the few Shiite religious voices in Saudi Arabia denouncing ultra-conservative Sunnis as well as the lack of self-criticism in his own religious milieu, which is too focused, in his eyes, on the past and not aware of the dramatic challenges of the present.

Saffar’s website is replete with essays on subjects not traditionally addressed in Saudi Arabia yet more and more relevant in the eyes of younger generations of Saudis: religious pluralism, freedom and dialogue, citizenship and democracy, human rights, national integration and unity. He remains careful, however, not to cross the red lines of religious-political activism, as political Islam—and all forms of political dissent—is forbidden, crushed and harshly punished in the country.

Saffar’s authority doesn’t lie only in his robust religious knowledge and charisma but also in his capacity to help his community achieve long-awaited civil and religious rights. In this regard, some improvement has indeed been registered in the public education sector, where religious publications have been purged of explicitly hateful anti-Shiite language—but not of implicit condemnation of Shiite religious tenets. In fact, school textbooks still maintain references to Shiite practices and beliefs as polytheistic, innovative, and deviated—and suggest that those who perform them will go straight to hell.

Saudi Arabia still forbids the construction of Shiite mosques in areas other than the Eastern Province—which shamefully denies the fundamental right to pray collectively to hundreds of thousands of Shiites who reside in the center and west of the country. Shiite religious authorities do not traditionally depend on public funds for the organization of their faith. They instead collect religious taxes and donations that help support their missionary activities, places of worship, and personnel. Their financial self-reliance has thus safeguarded both their independence from political powers and their legitimacy for centuries.

Shiite religious rituals have been allowed in the Eastern Province for a long time, though under heavy security measures. The Ashura ceremonies—which commemorate the martyrdom of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and the son of his cousin and son-in-law Ali, with mourning processions and dramatic reenactments that are central to Shiite worship—have been also recently tolerated (though not officially acknowledged) in Riyadh itself. Schools and publications of books have been allowed but under strict government scrutiny.


The changes are small yet noticeable in a country where Shiites were invariably castigated as rafidha, or rejectionists—if not apostates—by eminent government-funded religious scholars not too long ago. Preachers in Saudi mosques are now closely monitored and held accountable if they incite hatred against Shiites. Still, anti-Shiite content continues to percolate in religious rulings issued by the governmental Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and the Issuing of Fatwas, attached to the Council of Senior Scholars.

Fatwas on the prohibition of shrine construction and of all rituals associated with them as sinful acts of idolatry and polytheism can still be found on the committee’s website. The council is the highest official religious institution in Saudi Arabia yet does not include any Shiite scholar among its 21 members—all rigorously selected by the government and headed by the country’s grand mufti, appointed by the king.

Shiites are also missing from the governance of Saudi-founded and international Islamic institutions such as the Muslim World League and the World Assembly of Muslim Youth—organizations that help set the tone for much of the Sunni religious establishment in the world. Although some Saudi Shiites attended a May 2019 international conference in Mecca, Saudi Shiite religious scholars were absent from the gathering, where, under the aegis of the Muslim World League, 1,200 jurists and 4,500 intellectuals from 27 different Islamic denominations and 139 countries signed the Mecca Charter—the blueprint for the moderate form of Islam that Mohammed bin Salman officially espouses.

Shiite children should be allowed to study using textbooks that do not denigrate and demonize their practices and beliefs.

Religious reforms will not be fast. For one, there is no clear mechanism that allows some forms of intra-religious consultation. The National Dialogue, launched by then-Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz in 2003 after the two Gulf wars and the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, was a series of national consultations, including with Shiites—but is now virtually defunct. It remains nevertheless the one meaningful attempt to involve civil society in the reform process and to overcome Sunni-Shiite sectarian tensions through a sustained religious dialogue.

To succeed in promoting an inclusive, thriving, and harmonious society, Vision 2030 must therefore identify clear and practical steps in the promotion of religious pluralism.

One such a step could be a law against accusations of heresy (takfir), which have been traditionally leveled against Shiites by ultra-conservative Sunnis and the concept of which is more generally abused by the Islamic State to justify its genocidal campaigns and terrorist attacks.

Lifting restrictions on the building of places of worships and on the performance of Shiite rituals could be another step to restore fairness while bringing Shiism into the public eye.

Diffusion of knowledge is fundamental to eliminate anti-Shiite bias and contempt. In this regard, more room should be given to programs on Shiism on public TV and satellite channels, and Shiite children should be allowed to study using textbooks that do not denigrate and demonize their practices and beliefs. Furthermore, exchanges among religious scholars of all theological schools would help create a climate conducive to the removal of reciprocal prejudices, misconceptions, and bigotry.

Steps like these would surely help increase confidence among Shiites in the general reform process and decrease the danger of potential radicalization.

However, if efforts to counter structural anti-Shiism within Saudi Arabia’s conservative Sunni religious establishment amount to just lip service, Mohammed bin Salman’s moderate Islam will increasingly become just a hollow slogan to impress international audiences.

Update, May 21, 2021: This article has been updated to clarify that some Saudi Shiites were present at the 2019 Mecca conference, though, as the author suggests, none were recognized as religious scholars.

Antonella Caruso is the founder of the LAMEDINA Institute in Los Angeles and the former director of the Middle East and West Asia Division of the United Nations Department of Political Affairs.

More from Foreign Policy

An aerial display of J-10 fighter jets of China’s People’s Liberation.

The World Doesn’t Want Beijing’s Fighter Jets

Snazzy weapons mean a lot less if you don’t have friends.

German infantrymen folllow a tank toward Moscow in the snow in, 1941 during Operation Barbarossa, Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union. The image was published in. Signal, a magazine published by the German Third Reich. Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images

Panzers, Beans, and Bullets

This wargame explains how Russia really stopped Hitler.

19th-century Chinese rebel Hong Xiuquan and social media influencer Addison Rae.

America’s Collapsing Meritocracy Is a Recipe for Revolt

Chinese history shows what happens when an old system loses its force.

Afghan militia gather with their weapons to support Afghanistan security forces.

‘It Will Not Be Just a Civil War’

Afghanistan’s foreign minister on what may await his country after the U.S. withdrawal.