On Nov. 3, the day of Ashoura, gunmen attacked a Shiite hall in the village of al-Dalwah in al-Ahsa district, killing seven people and wounding 13 others. The operation drew a wave of condemnation from disparate segments of Saudi society. It was especially sensitive as Ashoura marks the commemoration of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein Bin Ali, one of the Shiites’ 12 imams and a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.
The Saudis' reactions differed from previous displays of ambivalence toward the deaths of Shiites, indicating the seriousness of the nature of the attack. In the past, the murder of Shiite citizens, such as Nasser al-Mahishi or Ali Folfol, who died in January 2012 during a “shootout between gunmen,” as described by the Ministry of Interior, did not receive much attention. The response to the al-Ahsa attack was notable in three respects: the kingdom's official religious institution, the General Secretariat of the Council of Senior Scholars, condemned the attack; the Ministry of Interior provided constant updates of the latest developments in the pursuit of the perpetrators; and the people commenting on the incident focused on people viewed as fomenting incitement, neglecting the Islamic State (IS) connection to the attack.
The general perception was that the attack was planned to spark sectarian strife, shake the security and safety of the kingdom and target national unity. Almost all the public reactions to the incident concerned these issues, regardless of commentators' perspectives or ideological leanings.
The General Secretariat of the Council of Senior Scholars issued a statement within hours through its secretary-general, Fahd Bin Saad al-Majd, who described the attack as “targeting our unity and stability.” Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti, Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, who is also head of the Council of Senior Scholars and chairman of the Permanent Committee for Islamic Research and Fataawa, condemned the attack on Nov. 5. Sheikh stands at the top of the religious pyramid in Saudi Arabia. He declared the incident an attempt to “spark strife among Muslims, especially in Saudi society.”
The reactions of Shiite clerics were no different. A statement signed by several Shiite sheikhs asserted the importance of maintaining unity and security as well as civil peace. The opinions of Shiite clerics, such as the writer Toufic al-Seif and Sheikh Hassan al-Saffar, both of whom have a history of opposing the Saudi government, was in line with the other reactions. Seif accused “takfiri” mobs of being behind the attack, contending that the attackers were no different from members of extremist groups active in Iraq and Syria. The investigation by the Ministry of Interior would eventually prove Seif's assessment correct.
The Ministry of Interior, through spokesman Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki, gave the incident a high media profile. In the immediate aftermath, Turki issued a series of statements, perhaps to forestall rumors. On Nov. 24, the ministry announced that it was closing the file, having concluded that the attack had been perpetrated by four IS-affiliated men, who were apprehended along with additional suspects.
In terms of reactions to the al-Dalwah attack, that of Minister of Culture and Information Abdul Aziz Khoja was the most interesting. He shut down the Wissal Channel in Riyadh on Nov. 4, forbidding it from operating in Saudi Arabia. The channel was declared "provocative" and accused of transmitting sectarian rhetoric. Khoja was dismissed the next day, and the channel resumed broadcasting.
The minister’s step was not without context. Several articles were published in Saudi newspapers in the wake of al-Ahsa attack, discussing the importance of confronting “provocative discourse” and “rhetoric of sectarian hatred” and directly blaming it for the attacks. That Khoja took unilateral action in shutting down the channel, which he then announced on Twitter, could have raised the ire of the government, but it is unlikely that this is the actual reason behind his dismissal.
Although it remains unclear what exactly led to the minister’s firing, it is possible the move was an indirect criticism of the government’s apparent reluctance in closing down such firebrand channels, thus holding it somewhat liable for the al-Dalwah attack. Khoja was therefore dismissed and the channel allowed to resume operations to show the absence of any blame by the government.
There are three contexts that must be taken into consideration when examining the Saudi reactions to the incident. First, the region has been witnessing pronounced sectarian divisions, which turned into civil wars in Iraq and Syria and serious divisions in Bahrain. The Saudis fear similar fates in the face of sectarian attacks, such as in al-Ahsa, if they begin to occur repeatedly.
The second factor involves protests in the east. With the eruption of Arab Spring revolutions in 2011, the Shiite areas in the kingdom became stages for protest. The situation in the eastern region, especially in Qatif, has been tense for years. As a result, the al-Ahsa attack is seen as an attempt to widen the gap between Shiite citizens and the government, which some observers say has not given Shiites enough protection.
The third reflects the conflict in Saudi society between conservatives and their antagonists. Conservative Islamists have been accused of provocation and spreading sectarian hatred. Provocation was raised as a key factor in the al-Ahsa attack, perhaps to punish some sheikhs or to limit their influence. The disputes persist on social issues, like the right of women to drive and sending students to study abroad.
These three situations pushed Saudis to firmly reject the al-Ahsa attack, which might have been an attempt to implicate the kingdom in regional sectarian divisions. The responses from the official religious institution, Shiite scholars, Islamists and other parties all focused on societal unity and reflected a fear of becoming involved in sectarian strife that would allow IS to make headway on Saudi soil, a threat that IS advocates have issued through social media.
None of the parties in Saudi Arabia want their country to become a stage for armed conflicts like those raging in Iraq and Syria. Although Saudis are involved in these disputes, whether through the remarkable number of Saudis in extremist Islamist organizations such as IS or the kingdom’s contribution to fanning sectarianism in the area, all Saudis agree on preventing the country from the wave of sectarian chaos sweeping the region.