Sectarianism in Saudi Arabia: The Challenges and Opportunities of Wasatiyya and Wataniyya

Editor's  note: Over the next few weeks Maydan will publish articles presented at the Sectarianism, Identity and Conflict in Islamic Contexts: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives conference held at George Mason University in April 2016. We hope this series will help the broader public to develop a healthier engagement with the concept of sectarianism, an often misunderstood phenomenon.

The centrality of religion in Saudi Arabia pervades both society and the state as a source of political legitimacy and a guide to public and private life. It is also a source of identity and belonging for those who adhere to the state religion – Wahhabi Islam – and a source of exclusion for those who do not. As Saudi Arabia enters the 21st century, questions abound as to what it means to be a citizen today in light of the central role of religion.

Concerned about extremism both within and without the Kingdom in the aftermath of September 11, King Abdullah had promoted the twin pillars of wasatiyya (moderation) and wataniyya (love of nation) as the central duties of Saudi citizen-subjects. Yet, today, the challenges of allowing citizen-subjects to become participants in decision-making and claim a stake in the nation at both the local and national levels (municipal and Shura councils) seems to be meeting a roadblock due to the claimed need to maintain security at a time of serious regional instability. Caught in the midst of these debates about citizenship and security are the Saudi Shiʻa, who are variously viewed as partners in national dialogue, Iranian agents, student ambassadors, apostates, political dissidents, and even terrorists within. Rather than having the agency to determine and assert their own identity, Saudi Shiʻa often find that their identity is typically projected onto them from the outside, whether by the government, fellow citizens, Saudi religious scholars, or the media. Such portrayals tend to fluctuate based on changes in the economy and domestic, regional and international concerns. In these portrayals the Saudi Shiʻa identity is neither constant nor something over which the Saudi Shiʻa themselves have any control.[1] This view also insists that Shiʻa can only be identified as Shiʻa,[2] rather than by other categories, such as age or gender. The ultimate question is whether Shiʻa will ever be able to claim a stable position as partners in the projects of wasatiyya and wataniyya or if they will forever remain simply subjects and objects of these state policies.

“The ultimate question is whether Shiʻa will ever be able to claim a stable position as partners in the projects of wasatiyya and wataniyya or if they will forever remain simply subjects and objects of these state policies.”

Wasatiyya has been asserted as the national program for reform and the official government-backed approach to interpreting Islam. As such, it is supposed to represent an ethical approach to community-building and work in tandem with wataniyya to make moderate religious interpretation and practice a central aspect of citizenship. At the same time, adherence to wasatiyya and wataniyya is intended to create a central and primary identity that overrides other identities that have tended to segment society, such as client networks, tribal affiliation, geographic location, and sectarianism.

Although the declared goal of wasatiyya is the creation of moderate citizens as stakeholders in and constructors of modern Saudi society, it is not a program of democratization. Obedience to the state remains central to the vision of wasatiyya and wataniyya, so that moderation and love of country are performed through obedience to the government, leaving the government in the ultimate position of power. As far as the government is concerned, the purpose of wasatiyya is to promote the public good of stability and avoid the public “bads” of sedition and fitna. In other words, it is intended to serve as a counter to extremism, which the Saudi government defines as dissent of all varieties, whether violent or not. The challenge to this approach is that it places all opposition – violent extremists and moderate non-religious establishment scholars alike – in the same category.[3] It also assumes that simply commanding people to “be moderate” will be sufficient for people to internalize, embody and ultimately express “moderation” as a “performative practice.”[4] At the same time, although the government has denounced takfiri ideology as anathema to the program of wasatiyya and has asserted greater levels of control over government-supported expressions of Islam,[5] certain aspects of government-sponsored religious interpretation remain anything but moderate, namely certain interpretations of the concepts of al-amr bi-al-ma’ruf wa-al-nahy ‘an al-munkar (the promotion of virtue and the prevention of vice – the central purpose of the Haia) and al-wala’ wa-al-bara’ (loyalty to God, Islam and Muslims and disavowal of other religions and non-Muslims). Critics have further charged that leaving the government in the position of a monopoly over religious interpretation constitutes extremism. Specifically, they charge that these are means of blocking the voice of the Sahwi,[6] the religiously awakened groups, in particular.

Perhaps nowhere has this disconnect between rhetoric and “performative practice” been more apparent than in state-sanctioned attitudes toward Saudi Shiʻa whose religious beliefs and practices have consistently been opposed by Wahhabi ulama who consider Shiʻa to be rafidah (rejectionists) and mushrikun (polytheists). The government routinely tolerates and, at times, supports anti-Shʻia fatwas, polemics, and books, including in the state-owned media,[7] even though the 1992 Basic Law prohibits sectarian discrimination.[8] Shiʻa are further portrayed as being absent from the state meta-narrative of Saudi history, implying that they are neither indigenous to the regions that today make up Saudi Arabia nor have participated in nation-building historically.[9] All of this is designed to keep the Saudi Shiʻa outside of systems of power, justify discrimination against them, and establish a social terrain for them to be considered the “enemy within,” thereby allowing the anti-Shi’a rhetoric and suspicion to flare during times of crisis.

“Despite some initiatives geared toward broader inclusion of Shiʻa as Saudi citizens, such as the National Dialogues, Shi’a have yet to be included on the Council of Senior Ulama.”
 Despite some initiatives geared toward broader inclusion of Shiʻa as Saudi citizens, such as the National Dialogues, Shi’a have yet to be included on the Council of Senior Ulama.[10] In addition, they remain limited in terms of where they can publicly practice their religious rituals, and continue to face bans on construction and repairs of their mosques and hussainiyyat – which also receive threats of demolition.[11] Such mixed messages of inclusion and exclusion leave Saudi Shiʻa wondering about their real place in the government programs of wasatiyya and wataniyya, particularly with the resurgence and ratcheting up of anti-Shiʻa rhetoric and suspicion in the aftermath of the Arab Uprisings of 2011 and the ongoing proxy war with Iran in Yemen.

“Such mixed messages of inclusion and exclusion leave Saudi Shiʻa wondering about their real place in the government programs of wasatiyya and wataniyya, particularly with the resurgence and ratcheting up of anti-Shiʻa rhetoric and suspicion in the aftermath of the Arab Uprisings of 2011 and the ongoing proxy war with Iran in Yemen.”

Protests in al-Awwamiyya

It is within this context that the ongoing protests in al-Awwamiyya must be understood. Although the government portrays these protests as acts of sedition and terrorism, Shiʻa youth see this as the only way to make their voices and concerns, along with those of others, heard.[12] Initially, the government appeared to be responsive to Shiʻa protestors’ demands,[13] in keeping with positive government responses to other demonstrations, largely by Sunni youth.[14] However, the situation rapidly deteriorated and has become so extreme that any kind of protest or demonstration held in the Eastern Province is immediately labeled a “security threat,” despite the fact that the initial protests were nonviolent and the only force used was by the Saudi government.[15]

Although the overall picture is often discouraging, there have been, nevertheless, some moments of hope. The initiation of a series of Shiʻa mosque bombings inside Saudi Arabia in May 2015 marked a moment of national solidarity in support of the victims, with massive rallies by hundreds of thousands of people and front-page coverage by the Saudi media calling for an end to sectarian violence.[16] Shiʻa youth have also gained practical experience with different nonviolent means of engaging the government, including protests, demonstrations, online petitions and campaigns, and boycotts. They have further adopted the broader terminology of the Arab Spring – dignity (karama), freedom (hurriya), and rights (huquq) – in order to broaden the appeal of their campaign. There have also been moments of cooperation between Sunni reformists and Shiʻa leaders, including the signing of a joint statement criticizing the violent government response to protests in Qatif.

Yet, challenges also remain, particularly given the ongoing sense of insecurity in Shiʻi majority areas due to attacks by the Islamic State and government crackdowns. Saudi Shiʻa continue to live in a state of fear that the government views them as a security threat deserving punishment for disobedience, rather than legitimate citizens who deserve state protection.[17] Shiʻa responses to the government’s failure to provide security have included the formation of popular protection committees – al-Hashd al-Shaabi[18] – with both male and female patrols in the streets and at mosque entrances. Similar to the circumstances in Jeddah following the floods of 2009 and 2011 when Jeddans had to fend for themselves as a matter of survival the Shiʻa are exerting their own agency in solving their problems, rather than relying on government handouts out of a sense of manufactured helplessness. Yet, whereas the citizen initiatives that followed the Jeddah floods received positive responses throughout the Kingdom, the establishment of Shiʻi security committees was quickly denounced as an attempt to overtake a role legitimately belonging to the government and a first step in the militarization of the Shiʻa population.[19]

In the end, what is clear is that youth across the board have absorbed the government messages of wasatiyya and wataniyya, albeit perhaps in ways the government had not intended. Youth have proven willing to engage across sectarian lines, including on social media platforms,[20] although their program has yet to fully materialize.[21] Self-empowerment and demands for accountability have become the new expectations for how “moderation” is to be embodied and practiced – with the expectation that “moderation” on the part of youth will be met with “moderation” on the part of the government in responding to their needs and demands. As Saudi youth, Sunni and Shiʻa alike, continue to debate the future direction their country needs to take, they are increasingly demanding a role in being the change – and citizens – they want to see.  The question is whether they will use this opportunity to engage in a more positive approach to identity construction based on what they share in common, rather than what divides them.

[1] Matthiesen, for example, has argued that the “Shia threat” represented by “the other Saudis” serves as a useful rallying point for the Saudi government during times of crisis. See Toby Matthiesen, The Other Saudis: Shiism, Dissent and Sectarianism(New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), esp. 16-18.

[2] This article focuses on the majority Twelver Shiʻa population in the Eastern Province, although there are other indigenous populations of Twelver and Ismaili Shiʻa in Medina and Najran, respectively. For full histories, see Fouad Ibrahim’s The Shi’is of Saudi Arabia; The Other Saudis by Matthiesen; and Raihan Ismail’s recent book,. Saudi Clerics and Shi’a Islam..

[3] This is even the case when moderate voices are under attack by extremist elements, as seen most recently in the assassination attempt against Dr. Aaidh al-Qarni in the Philippines following an appeal by ISIS to assassinate various Saudi religious scholars, named in issue No. 13 of Dabiq, “The Rafidah: From Ibn Saba’ to the Dajjal,” pp. 7-8, published online in1437 Rabi’ al-Akhir (2015).

[4] This draws upon the idea of “performative practices” before “mini-publics” described by Lisa Wedeen in her Peripheral Visions: Publics, Power and Performance in Yemen.

[5] The Ministry of Islamic Affairs, for example, requires that any books and leaflets distributed by mosques or imams be pre-approved. “Imams told to refrain from circulating banned literature,” Arab News, May 19, 2013. A July 2013 directive from the Ministry of Education requires that scholars who are not members of the Council of Senior Ulama obtain a formal permit to deliver lectures in schools and seasonal clubs for students. Given that the religiously awakened groups, or the Sahwi, used these means in the 1970s and 1980s to build their popular base, the government is clearly seeking to prevent the spread of any religious message other than its own. “Ministry requires permits for scholars to lecture at schools,” Arab News, July 8, 2013.

[6] Literally, the “Awakening,” or those non-establishment religious scholars who have taken up the mantle of political critique, particularly in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990-91. For details, see Stephane Lacroix’s Awakening Islam: The Politics of Religious Dissent in Contemporary Saudi Arabia.

[7] There is a long-standing trend among Saudi official ulama, up to and including former Grand Mufti Shaykh Abdulaziz bin Baz (1910-1999), of issuing statements and fatwas against Shi’a religious practices and Saudi Shi’a clerics.

[8] Article 12 of the 1992 Basic Law of Saudi Arabia states, “The consolidation of national unity is a duty, and the State will prevent anything that may lead to disunity, sedition and separation.” Article 39 states, “Information, publication and all other media shall employ courteous language and adhere to State’s regulations, and they shall contribute to the education of the nation and the bolstering of its unity. All acts that foster sedition or division or harm the State’s security and its public relations or detract from man’s dignity and rights shall be prohibited.” In addition, Royal Decree No. M/32 states that any person inciting disunity between citizens and harming the country will be punished. Despite this, legislation specifically criminalizing incitement of hatred has not been enacted, although it is periodically discussed in the Majlis al-Shura.

[9] Neither is true as the Shi’a have a long, documented history of living and conducting business in the region. At least 1 Ismaili tribe from Najran, the Al-Yam, played a pivotal role in supporting King Abdulaziz in the capture and consolidation of that region. The absence of Shi’a from the master state meta-narrative is representative of a broader trend in Gulf history-writing as an exercise in hegemony. See the edited volume Counter-Narratives: History, Contemporary Society, and Politics in Saudi Arabia and Yemen by Madawi al-Rasheed and Robert Vitalis,, and Jorg Matthias Determann’s Historiography in Saudi Arabia: Globalization and the State in the Middle East.

[10] Appointment of a Saudi Shiʻi scholar to the Council of Senior Ulama is a favorite recommendation of Western analysts and academics, along with strengthening of Shiʻa law courts, appointment of Shiʻa to high government positions and all fields of government employment, and by revising imagery and discussions of Shiʻa as rejectionists. Even if some of these propositions were actionable, they do not resolve the underlying suspicion, mistrust and general negativity with which the Shiʻa are viewed.

[11] Public licenses for Shiʻa buildings are not issued outside of al-Ahsa, Qatif, and Najran. There is only one exception – a mosque in Dammam. Shiʻa rituals are limited to practice in these areas, making  mosque construction critical to Shiʻa religious practice. Demolition similarly constitutes a threat to that practice.  Matthiesen notes that Sunni hardliners have been calling for the closure of Shiʻa mosques for decades.

[12] The initial demonstrations in 2011 demanded the release of political prisoners, national democratic reforms, and human rights, rather than specifically Shiʻa grievances.

[13] In the early days following a violent security assault on the uprising in the Eastern Province, it appeared that the government was at least somewhat responsive to Shia outrage over the deaths of 4 protesters. Eastern Province Governor Muhammad bin Fahd met with their families and promised to investigate and punish those responsible, giving each family SR100,000. However, despite promises to investigate and announce the outcomes, and despite the fact that authorities conducted medical post-mortems on the deceased, the government was accused of delays and failing to fulfill its obligations. Reported in “Freedom in Shackles.” A letter outlining the issues was published on 29 August 2012 with the title “Supporting the Establishment of Dialogue between Islamic Sects Center in Riyadh.”

[14] Examples would include Sunni university protests against substandard living conditions that were met with high-level meetings with officials who then outlined expected reforms in keeping with student demands.

[15] At the time of this writing the, Saudi security forces had killed more than 25 young men and arrested and imprisoned hundreds, including children. Human Rights Watch has reported more than 1,040 people arrested at Shi’a protests between February 2011 and August 2014, with at least 240 of the same still in detention. The movement’s figurehead, Shaykh Nimr al-Nimr, was shot in the leg 4 times during his arrest and executed in January 2016, along with “other terrorists,” mostly accused of membership in and support for Al-Qaida, despite the fact that al-Nimr always maintained that he did not engage in violence.

[16] See, for example, Mohammed Fahad Al-Harthi’s editorial, “National Unity Under Attack,” published by Arab News, May 27, 2015, and Khaled Almaeena, “The Sectarian Divide Threatens Saudi National Unity,” published in the Saudi Gazette, May 25, 2015. Almaeena dared to suggest that Saudis take responsibility for their own failure to speak out against imams who “spewed hatred and spread falsehood about Muslims of other sects and called upon Saudi citizens to claim their own empowerment and responsibility for protecting national unity.

[17] The only security measure that the government has taken in the Eastern Province has been to establish checkpoints designed to fulfill state security needs at the same time that the government has reached out to Sunni conservatives to shore up support for the war in Yemen, fueling further concerns among Shi’a about being perceived as the “enemy within.” See Toby Matthiesen. “Sectarianism after the Saudi mosque bombings.”

[18] Ibid. Matthiesen notes that the name makes deliberate reference to anti-IS militias in Iraq with a similar name.


[20] Saudi youth have used social media to denounce sectarianism and call for strengthening and enhancing a common sense of citizenship as the only genuine source of security. Mohammed Al-Saif. “Saudi youth decry sectarian divide,” Arab News, July 1, 2013.

[21] For example, in early March 2011, the Free Youth Coalition, composed of both Sunni and Shi’a youth, issued a joint 24-point set of demands, including freeing political prisoners, ending corruption, an elected consultative council, and making the judiciary independent. See Statement by Free Youth Coalition, Facebook, March 1, 2011,