Defending the Heartland: Saudi Arabia, Sectarianism and the Arab Spring That Wasn’t
Saudi Arabia is a prosperous oil exporting country with an estimated population of around 33 million. The autocratic Al-Saud dynasty has ruled the region for nearly 90 years, overseeing its transformation from a small desert nation to a modern, sophisticated state and a major player on the international stage. Historically, the Saudi government relied upon financial beneficence in exchange for loyalty to the regime. However, in response to the Arab Spring during early 2011, which saw mass demonstrations against authoritarianism and political corruption, other methods were deployed to preserve this allegiance and coerce their citizens into compliance.
Sectarianism, therefore, became a Saudi pre-emptive counter-revolutionary strategy which exaggerated religious differences and hatred to prevent the development of national non-sectarian politics. For example, prominent Sunni-Islamist groups, such as the Committee for the Defence of Legitimate Rights (CDLR), along with Shia dissidents, supported a ‘Day of Rage’ in Jeddah, Riyadh, and Qatif, organised for 11th March 2011. Though strategically, the Saudi government swiftly connected this dawah to Shia conspiracies and uprisings financed through Iranian proxies, as shown below.
‘Iran believes in exporting its revolution, it is enshrined in its constitution. Guess to whom it wants to expand its revolution? To us. They believe that every person who is a Shia belongs to Iran and that is unacceptable… they are a country that supports terrorism.’ — Saudi minister of foreign affairs, Adel bin Ahmad al-Jubeir
This approach achieved a duality of goals. Firstly, it enabled Saudi’s National Security Council (NSC) to enter Shiite provinces and stifle nascent civil unrest, cunningly portrayed as rebellion Shiite groups completely separated from those liberal movements demanding constitutional change. Considering that a large number of Shiites were residing within the Eastern province where previous anti-regime protests had traditionally occurred (e.g. Al Jubayl, ad-Dammām and Saihat), this sectarian discourse seemed entirely feasible. Crucially, it also enabled the NSC to regard Shiite minorities as instigators of the demonstrations.
Secondly, the implemented discourse of a Tehran inspired Shiite uprising within Saihat and Al Jubayl helped the regime rally its Sunni community, even those who harboured genuine concerns regarding the state’s ‘monopolisation of power’. Pro-Saudi propaganda outlets subsequently conveyed the oppositional movement as an extrinsic effort to incite anarchy, alienate populations, and threaten domestic sovereignty. Therefore, many people were persuaded to assume that any form of activism would risk fragmenting Saudi Arabia, potentially sparking a resurgence of regionalism, sectarianism, and tribalism.
Islamic theology also became an integral element to subdue government dissent, whereby the state tacitly secured the ideological backing of their ulama during the uprisings’ most tumultuous stage. For example, Salafi clerics warned against the ‘sword of Allah’ being imposed upon Muslims planning to engage in protests following ṣalāt al-jumu‘ah (Friday prayer) on the 12th March. Furthermore, on 7th March, the Council of Senior Scholars (CSS), Saudi Arabia’s main clerical body, published a fatwa prohibiting any form of activism, an extract of which is provided below.
‘The Council of Senior Clerics affirms that demonstrations are forbidden in this country. The correct way in sharia (Islamic law) of realising common interest is by advising, which is what the Prophet Mohammad established’ — Council of Senior Scholars (2011)
The orthodox ideas of sheikhs Saleh Al-Fawzan and Ibn Baz emphasising regime subservience were also revived, thereby giving potency to state discourse denouncing the uprisings. Saudi journalists, unsurprisingly, had written positively on the fatwa, with countless transcripts being disseminated within schools, universities and online. The General Intelligence Directorate also infiltrated the Saudi Liberal Network forum by posting the fatwa alongside state-sponsored messages.
These clerics further cautioned that an Iran-Safavis-Shiite conspiracy coordinated by local Shiite groups and Sunnis exiled to the West would spawn fitnah (disorder) and dichotomise their society. By relying upon negative sectarian fatwas of the Shiite (i.e. heretics and loyal to Tehran), Salafi scholars called for ijmā (agreement) with respect to King Abdullah, warning that fragmentation, endemic conflict and bloodshed would become an inevitability if Saudis took to the streets.
Local clerics who were not affiliated with the upper echelons of the CSS (e.g. neo-Wahhabi Muhammed al-Arifi) quickly capitalised on their sub-strata by denouncing Shiites freely within local mosques and uploading them online without risking retribution. Although most of these clerics had criticised their government when ‘man-made’ laws relaxing gender segregation were introduced, they were still supportive of their sectarian opinions, which purported Shiites as being heretics and a fifth column acting as agents to Iran.
The government and its ulama, therefore, successfully emulated narratives used by previous MENA dictators, including Bahrain’s Hamad al-Khalifa and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. Saudi’s cyber intelligence also became an instrumental tool for disseminating these ideas in order to demonise Shiites, condemn Iran, and, if Sunni Muslims sought primacy, oppose engaging with dubious foreign agents encouraging revolts.
This approach typically encompassed the rhetoric of ‘divine retribution’ which exploited the country’s sectarian fault-lines and incited anger, thereby thwarting the proliferation of non-violent, secular protests demanding legitimate constitutional reforms. Like the CSS, autonomous clerics had managed to (inadvertently) serve regime interests by denouncing Shia groups online in an attempt to boost reputations. Over time, these social media platforms effectively metamorphosed into digital battlefields targeting Shiites.
Alongside the binary discourse of regime subservience and intrinsic sectarian motives, state-funded newspapers persistently wrote stories criticising the growing ‘sectarianisation’ of the Middle East. Liberal writers had vilified the country’s radical Islamists, with multiple reporters openly celebrating Arab nationalism (al-Qawmīya). Broadsheets, including Al Jazirah and the global Asharq al-Awsat, became mediums to denounce ‘primitive forces’ which sabotaged al-Qawmīya, as illustrated below.
‘I am not against the participation of Islamist parties in politics, as long as they are prepared to respect the rules of democracy, but this is something that has not happened in the past, not even once! We have to realize that the very nature of ideological parties and Islamist political groups, intellectually and tactically, means that they deem other parties to be unacceptable, no matter how much they talk about tolerance and their adaptation to democratic thinking’ — Abdulrahman al-Rashed (2011) writing in al-Aswat
Although, it is often misconstrued that Saudi journalists, ergo, strove for closer bonds with Shias and supported legitimate protests to establish government reforms. In reality, they had merely defended the state by disrupting and embroiling popular sentiment, a fundamental step to derail a general consensus which strongly endorses demonstrations.
As many of the uprisings elsewhere began to take precedence, Saudi populations were, instead, experiencing contrasting paradoxical narratives nurtured by their government: the religious one supporting Sunni cohesion in defiance of heretical Shias, as well as the nationalist one criticising Wahhabis’ sectarian incentives. The political consensus, therefore, became distorted and blurred due to the Arab Spring’s conflicting analyses, which ultimately helped the regime’s plight through postponing potential reformations. This policy also maintained the ideological splits separating society’s liberals and radical clerics, not to mention the two main branches of Islam.
Amidst that disarray, Saudi’s monarchy unequivocally proved that only they could appease all parties by restricting excessive pan-Arabic and Islamist sentiment. These autocrats also reminded Muslims that, in the absence of government mediation, socio-economic turmoil would ensue, with tribal, sectoral and regional factions inevitably waging war upon another, hence, threatening their domestic sovereignty and enticing Western proxies to further exploit vital oil reserves.
Author: Christian De Grussa (Masters student at Kings College London)