But now, death sentences for three Shi’ite Muslims including a prominent dissident cleric suggest that the region’s wider turmoil is further hardening attitudes toward the sect at home.
The news has not triggered the sort of clashes that left three people dead after the arrest of the cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, in 2012, but it did lead to consecutive nights of protests for the first time in months.
It also prompted a warning from Iran, the regional Shi’ite power that Riyadh accuses of fomenting unrest among its Shi’ites, and that is vying with Saudi Arabia’s Sunni rulers for influence in conflicts raging from Lebanon to Yemen, Iraq, Bahrain and, most acutely, Syria.
“There is nothing formal, but when they are angry about Iran, their doubts over Shi’ites increase, and sectarian sentiments rise as well. It certainly affects policy making and behaviour,” said Tawfiq al-Seif, a Shi’ite community leader in Qatif, one of the two main centres of the sect in Saudi Arabia, along with al-Ahsa.
Saudi Shi’ites, long regarded by the kingdom’s official Wahhabi Sunni school as heretics, have for decades been tarred by many compatriots as more loyal to their coreligionists across the Gulf than to the Saudi ruling dynasty.
Protests in Qatif in 2011 and 2012 were dismissed by the government as instigated by a ‘foreign power’, code for Iran, and Nimr was accused of serving Iranian interests.
The demonstrators and Iran both denied the accusation. But the encouragement of such protests by Iranian media, and comments such as one last week by a general in Iran’s Basij militia that Nimr’s execution would make the world into “a hell” for the dynasty, do nothing to allay Saudi fears that Iran is fomenting Shi’ite unrest not only in Saudi Arabia but also in Yemen and Bahrain.
CRACKDOWN ON ISLAMISTS
It is notable that during the years from 1993-2006, when Saudi Shi’ites felt the government in Riyadh was most amenable to addressing what they see as entrenched discrimination, Iran appeared less determined to square up to the Al Saud dynasty.
Saudi authorities say they do not discriminate against Shi’ites and that their security and judicial treatment is the same as for Sunnis.
It is also true that the crackdown on dissent since the Arab Spring has also targeted Sunni groups committed to the cause of Islamist rule.
But that, too, has Shi’ites worried. Some argue that the Al Saud are taking a tougher position against Shi’ite activists as a message to the Sunni majority that its crackdown against Islamists is not aimed exclusively at Sunnis.
“The government is appearing as if it’s heavy-handed against Sunni Islamists. There are a lot of sections of Saudi society who find that very puzzling and unacceptable,” said Madawi al-Rasheed, visiting professor at the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics, and a critic of the Saudi dynasty.
The Al Saud have always depended on conservative Sunnis as the foundation of their support in a country where tribal and regional divisions still linger, and where there are no elections to provide democratic legitimacy.
But while Riyadh has backed relatively moderate Sunni rebel groups fighting Iranian-backed governments in Iraq and Syria, it has also joined air strikes against the fundamentalist Islamic State and aided Egypt’s military in its crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood.
Unlike four Shi’ites sentenced to death so far for throwing petrol bombs at police during the 2011 protests, Nimr was not accused of active violence, except for allegedly ordering his driver to ram a police car while fleeing.
Instead, he was convicted of a range of political crimes such as inciting people to disobey the ruler, calling for the overthrow of the government, inciting riots in the neighbouring Sunni-ruled monarchy of Bahrain, and denouncing the judiciary.
Other offences were bound up with Shi’ite beliefs, such as inciting sectarian sedition by defaming early Muslim figures who are revered by Sunnis but reviled by Shi’ites.
“The death sentence for Nimr is very important at this point because it shows Saudis that they are not letting the Shia get away with protests,” said Rasheed. – Reuters