February 24, 2009 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 482

Recent Rise in Sunni–Shi'ite Tension (Part III): Sectarian Strife in Saudi Arabia

February 24, 2009 | By Y. Admon*
Saudi Arabia | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 482

Tension between Sunnis and Shi'ites in Saudi Arabia has recently intensified. The Arab press reports that the Saudi authorities have taken discriminatory measures against the Shi'ites in the country, such as preventing the participation of Shi'ite representatives in the June 2008 Interfaith Dialogue Conference in Mecca, closing Shi'ite mosques, arresting senior Shi'ite clerics and persecuting Shi'ite pilgrims from Iran.

In addition, there have been anti-Shi'ite statements by Sunni clerics in Saudi Arabia, such as a June 2008 communiqué by 22 clerics accusing the Shi'ites of heresy and of trying to take over the Muslim world, which sparked considerable protest in Shi'ite circles. On the other hand, there were initiatives for Sunni-Shi'ite rapprochement, but these were condemned by Saudi Sunnis.

This report will discuss the policy of the Saudi authorities towards the Shi'ites in the country, initiatives of rapprochement between Sunnis and Shi'ites, and the attempts to prevent these initiatives.

Saudi Arabia's Policy vis-à-vis Its Shi'ite Minority

There have been recent reports that the Saudi authorities were taking discriminatory measures against the Saudi Shi'ite minority. Thus, a report published recently by Human Rights Watch (HRW) stated that the Saudi authorities were discriminating against the Shi'ite Isma'ili sect in Saudi Arabia in education, freedom of religion, and equality under the law, and that they did not accept Shi'ites for government positions. Joe Stork, acting director of HRW's Middle East and North Africa division, stated that "the Saudi government was advocating religious tolerance outside Saudi Arabia, while at the same time systematically penalizing members of the Isma'ili community for their beliefs. The [Saudi] government must stop treating the Isma'ilis as second-class citizens…"[1]

According to a recent report, Saudi King 'Abdallah bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz has dismissed Prince Mash'al bin Sa'ud bin 'Abd 'Al-'Aziz from his position as governor of the Najran province, where clashes occurred between Saudi security forces and the Isma'ili minority. The report also stated that Prince Mash'al had been dismissed at his own request. It should be noted that members of the Isma'ili minority in Najran are accusing Prince Mash'al of discriminating against them. in light of numerous arrests to which they were subjected while he was in office.[2]

In June 2008, several Arab websites reported that the Saudi government had banned Shi'ite clerics and Sunni residents who did not belong to the Salafi stream from participating in the June 2008 Interfaith Dialogue Conference in Mecca. According to the report, the Saudi government had restricted conference participation to members of the Salafi stream, making an exception only for Sheikh Jawad Al-Khalasi, an Iraqi oppositionist who resides outside Iraq. The report further stated that the Saudi government had forbidden Shi'ite citizens to represent Saudi Arabia at any overseas conference.[3]

The Shi'ite website reported that on June 5, 2008, Saudi authorities closed down three Shi'ite mosques in Al-Khobar, arresting several Shi'ite clerics and some mosque employees. According to the report, the Saudi authorities informed the Shi'ite clerics that the Eastern Province Emirate had officially decided to close down the three mosques in question and to ban prayers there.[4]

The website also reported that a Shi'ite religious freedom activist, Sheikh Tawfiq Al-'Amer, had been arrested for criticizing the 22 Sunni clerics who had posted an anti-Shi'ite statement. According to the report, in his June 13, 2008 sermon Al-'Amer asserted that these clerics did not represent the entire Sunni community, but spoke only for themselves. He added that their statement had set the stage for a war against the Shi'ites and that "the government had to protect [the Shi'ite population] against these clerics." In addition, Al-'Amer demanded that the Sunni clerics retract their statement, and called the Saudi government to curb their activities.[5] It was further reported that Al-'Amer had been released after a week's imprisonment, and that he had been asked to stop his religious activity and to desist from criticizing the treatment of Shi'ites in Saudi Arabia.[6]

Another Shi'ite cleric who was arrested and subsequently released was Imam Sheikh Namer Baqer Al-Namer, who had repeatedly appealed to the Saudi government to help the Saudi Shi'ites by introducing "real reform" in religious freedom. It is noteworthy that in one of his sermons, Al-Namer professed allegiance to Iran, stating: "…We support Iran with all our heart, and will [continue doing so] with all capabilities available to us…" He added that "Iran had the right to close the Strait of Hormuz, to destroy the Zionist entity, to strike the U.S. bases and interests everywhere… and to obtain nuclear capabilities for the purposes of self-defense…"[7]

Sunni Clerics: The Shi'ites Are Supporting the Enemies of Islam

On June 1, 2008, three days before the Islamic Conference on Interfaith Dialogue, posted a statement by 22 Sunni clerics, including Sheikh 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Barrak and 'Abdallah bin Al-Jibrin, accusing the Shi'ites of heresy and warning about accepting "the specious arguments of the Shi'ah" to the effect that it supports Islam and advocates hatred towards Jews and Americans, which are akin to the false contentions of Hizbullah in Lebanon. The clerics further claimed that the Shi'ites took every opportunity to help the enemies of the Muslims, and that they tended to take over every country in which they lived, as was evident in Iran and Iraq. The Sunni clerics also accused the Shi'ites of sowing strife, of corruption, and of undermining the security of Muslim countries.

In their statement, the clerics wrote: "… Of all ethnic groups in the [Muslim] nation, the Shi'ite community is the nastiest – it is the most hostile and treacherous towards the Sunnis… Islam and the Muslims are still suffering on account [of the Shi'ites], who are constantly plotting to destroy [the Sunnis] and their religion. [Moreover, the Shi'ites] grab every opportunity to back the enemies of the Muslims, and if they have a state of their own, they subjugate its Sunni residents and rule over them, as is the case in Iran and Iraq. They sow internal strife among the Muslims, along with all kinds of corruption and destruction, and undermine the security of Muslim countries. This has happened during several pilgrimages to Mecca and also to the supporters of Badr Al-Din Al-Houthi in Yemen…"[8]

Shi'ite Clerics' Reaction: The Salafists Are Responsible for Bloodshed All Over the World

In response to the aforementioned statement by 22 Sunni clerics, on July 2, 2008 85 Shi'ite clerics posted, on several websites, a communiqué condemning the Sunni statement. They argued that those "who issued fatwas accusing others of heresy were responsible for the appalling bloodshed in Saudi Arabia and the Islamic world." The Shi'ite clerics demanded that the Sunni clerics "engage in self-scrutiny and examine the current situation of the Shi'ites objectively and conscientiously."[9]

Saudi Liberal: The Shi'ite Minority in Saudi Arabia Must Have Equal Treatment

Several Arab columnists condemned the statement by the Sunni clerics and praised the statement by the Shi'ite clerics, arguing that the former bolstered the ideology behind heresy accusations, and that the Shi'ite minority in Saudi Arabia must have equal treatment. In an article in the daily Al-Ittihad, which is published in the UAE in Arabic, Saudi liberal and political analyst Khaled Al-Dakhil wrote: "…The Shi'ite citizens in the Saudi Arabia are equal to the rest [of the population]...

"It must be noted that, of all the clerics who signed the Sunni statement, not a single one belongs to an official religious establishment such as the Saudi Council for Religious Research or the Saudi Council of Senior Clerics. Moreover, the statement was signed by [only] 22 [clerics], which suggests that it did not receive wide support – and this is a good sign…"[10]

Sunni Cleric: It is Forbidden to Sell Real Estate to the Shi'ites

On October 22, 2008, Salafi Sunni Sheikh 'Abdallah bin 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Sa'd issued a fatwa forbidding Saudi Sunnis to sell real estate to Shi'ites. The fatwa stated: "…Selling real estate to Shi'ites would enable them to form a state, which they intend to use as a tool for destroying the Muslim religion and spreading their heretical views among the Muslims. It is no secret that the Shi'ites are in league with infidel countries whose aim is to occupy Muslim countries, as has already happened in Afghanistan and Iraq… They seek to take possession of Sunnis' lands, houses, apartments and other real estate in this pure country, and plan to take over Saudi Arabia and expand their influence there."[11]

Saudi Sunni liberal Mukhlif bin Daham Al-Shammari contended that this fatwa would "ignite the flames of internal conflict." In token of solidarity with the Shi'ites, Al-Shammari put his private apartment up for sale, setting the price at 10% below its original cost. He also asked the Saudi authorities and clerics to stop issuing fatwas of this kind.[12]

Reports of Abuse of Iranian Pilgrims

The Iranian weekly Sobh-e Sadeq, which is the mouthpiece of Iranian Supreme Leader 'Ali Khamenei circulated among the IRGC, accused the Saudi authorities of subjecting Iranian pilgrims to harsh and humiliating treatment. The weekly reported that Mohammad Rishhari, Khamenei's representative for pilgrimage affairs, had stated that despite attempts by Iranian Expediency Council Chairman Hashemi Rafsanjani, during his [June 2008] visit to Saudi Arabia, to ensure better conditions for Iranian pilgrims, they had actually become worse, especially in the city of Al-Madina.[13] Rishhari expressed concern about "discourteous behavior" on the part of Saudi Arabia, adding that according to reports by Iranian students, Saudi Arabia was subjecting Iranian pilgrims to abusive treatment.[14]

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki likewise criticized Saudi Arabia's policy [on pilgrimage], stating that… its conduct "was unacceptable," and that Iran's ambassador to Saudi Arabia would look into the matter further.[15]

Attempts at Conciliation between the Sunnis and the Shi'ites

The statement by 22 Sunni clerics was also condemned by several Sunni elements, who called for conciliation between Sunnis and Shi'ites in Saudi Arabia. According to Shi'ite sources, on June 19, 2008, Sheikh Muhammad Al-Nujaimi, member of the counseling committee and of the Islamic Fiqh Academy (IFA), met with prominent Shi'ite clerics, including Sheikh Hassan Al-Saffar, in hope of quelling the storm that the Sunni statement had stirred up. Sheikh Al-Saffar's website reported that during this meeting, Al-Nujaimi had disclaimed the Sunni statement, asserting that the majority of the Sunnis did not consider its authors to be a [religious] authority. Al-Nujaimi also stressed the importance of a dialogue between the [the Sunnis and the Shi'ites], adding that he disagreed with the authors of the statement and did not support them.[16]

In token of support for King 'Abdallah's initiative for trilateral dialogue of the three monotheistic religions, and as a protest against the Sunni statement, Al-Shammari posted, on the Shi'ite website, a statement announcing that he intended to pray in a Shi'ite mosque in the city of Al-Qatif. He wrote that both Sunnis and Shi'ites must promote mutual tolerance and respect, and denounce hatred and extremism in relations among different schools of thought in Islam. Al-Shammari also called on the Shi'ites to join Sunnis in prayer in one of the Sunni mosques in the city of Al-Khobar, situated on the east coast of Saudi Arabia.[17]

In response to Al-Shammari's appeal, on June 13, 2008, a delegation of six Sunnis, headed by Shammari himself, visited a Shi'ite mosque in Al-Qatif and heard a Friday sermon by Imam Hassan Al-Saffar, in which the latter spoke of the importance of unity among the ranks of Saudi Muslims. The delegation members reported that their visit had been prompted by the aforementioned anti-Shi'ite Sunni statement.[18]

In an interview with a Saudi local paper, Al-Shammari stated that the visit had been a success and that he, in turn, had invited Shi'ites to pray in a Sunni mosque in Al-Khobar. He added that Sheikh Al-Saffar had praised the initiative and had published an announcement encouraging Shi'ites to visit Sunni mosques in Al-Khobar and hold Friday prayers there.[19]

In an interview with, Saudi Shi'ite activist Zuhair Al-Hajjaj stated that "a visit by a Shi'ite delegation to a Sunni mosque would be the first in a series of reciprocal visits by Sunni and Shi'ite residents aimed at promoting conciliation between these two schools of thought, which are, in effect, offshoots of the same religion." He stressed that "between these two schools of thought, there were many more common aspects than points of dissention," pointing out that "meaningful conciliation would necessitate initiative on the part of prominent clerics and intellectuals on both sides," and expressing hope that "holding [joint] prayers in Sunni and Shi'ite mosques would constitute the first step in this direction."[20]

Sheikh Al-Barak: Conciliation Between Sunnis and Shi'ites Is Forbidden

On June 15, 2008, Saudi Sheikh 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Barak, one of the initiators of the Sunni statement, issued a fatwa on rejecting the idea of conciliation between the Sunnis and the Shi'ites. He wrote: "The Sunna and the Shi'a represent two contradictory and incompatible philosophies, and comprise two sectors [of the population] which are different and not capable of marching in step… Calling for conciliation between Sunna and Shi'a is like calling for a rapprochement between Christianity and Islam – while everyone knows that heresy and Islam are irreconcilable opposites… It is also well known that in the [Muslim] nation, the Shi'ite sector is the nastiest… [So] whoever calls for conciliation between the Sunna and the Shi'a is either an ignoramus who knows nothing about these two schools of thought, or pretending to be one…"[21]

Attempts to thwart Al-Shammari's initiative have also occurred among the Saudi public. Thus, according to, on June 20, 2008 a delegation of 50 Shi'ite Saudi citizens who were en route to visit a Sunni mosque in Al-Khobar were forced to turn back and to postpone their visit until a later date. They changed their plans after a group of Salafi extremists threatened to attack the mosque and target the Shi'ites participating in the prayers. According to this report, Salafi extremists have launched an anti-Shi'ite incitement campaign, with the aim of preventing any further attempts to hold joint Sunni-Shi'ite prayers.[22]

*Y. Admon is a research fellow at MEMRI.


[1], September 23, 2008.

[2], November 5, 2008.

[3], June 6, 2008.

[4], June 8, 2008.

[5], June 15, 2008; June 23, 2008.

[6], June 29, 2008.

[7], July 14, 2008.

[8], June 1, 2008.

[9], July 2, 2008.

[10] Al-Ittihad (UAE), July 23, 2008.

[11], October 22, 2008.

[12], October 23, 2008.

[13] Sobh-e-Sadeq (Iran), July 28, 2008.

[14] Fars (Iran), August 6, 2008.

[15] Fars (Iran), August 6, 2008.

[16], June 26, 2008;, June 21, 2008.

[17], June 8, 2008.

[18], June 13, 2008.

[19], June 18, 2008.

[20], June 16, 2008.

[21], June 15, 2008.

[22], June 20, 2008.

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