Saudi Shiite intellectuals and Iran

While Shiite intellectuals in Saudi Arabia often criticize the Saudi state for linking its policies with Sunni doctrine, they themselves fail to criticize Iran due to similar sectarian considerations.

al-monitor Saudi recently featured a story about Al-Hayat's interview with Badr Ibrahim, who recently coauthored a book on Shiites in Saudi Arabia.  Photo by REUTERS/Mushtaq Muhammed.

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shiites in saudi arabia, shiites, shiite, religion, iran, intellectuals

Mar 30, 2014

As part of my discussion of the separation of religion and state, it is useful to tackle the relationship between intellectuals and religious doctrine. Current developments require handling this topically relevant issue. With the hope of elaborating on this later, I will tackle this issue from a specific angle based on the hypothesis that sometimes intellectuals identify themselves in one way or another with social, political or intellectual affiliations, of sometimes a doctrinal character. At times, this happens in a conscious and intentional way, while at other times it is spontaneous and effortless. In both cases, this identification is unnecessary, because these intellectuals are religious. They may not be, but in their positions they represent — as religious and other people do — one of the formulas adopted by intellectuals under the circumstances and constraints of the stage. Just as there are secular, traditional, socialist and liberal intellectuals, there are Christian, Muslim, Sunni and Shiite intellectuals. 

I am going to talk about Shiite intellectuals in the Arabian Gulf, particularly in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, in light of the political circumstances that are boiling over in the region following the Arab Spring revolutions. What distinguishes Shiite intellectuals from others to the point of making their position worth considering? First, they demand their political rights and to be equal to others in their country, which is certainly their right. Second, they take a critical stance, which is sometimes acute, toward the state to which they belong, which is also their right. Third, these intellectuals mostly tend to remain silent or “unbiased” regarding the abuses and mistakes that are committed by forces, movements or parties intersecting with their sectarian identity. In their demands and critical positions, these intellectuals seemingly start off as Shiites first and foremost, rather than citizens who have the right to be equal to others.

The stance of Shiite intellectuals in Iran is relevant to the topic. It was addressed by Badr Ibrahim and Muhammad Sadiq, the authors of the book, The Shiite Movement in Saudi Arabia, which was released last year. The book is characterized by the vision on which the authors relied and by a balanced and daring writing performance while addressing relevant issues.

First of all, I agree with the authors that saying that Saudi Shiites are loyal to Iran is “very reckless and a simplification of the issue.” As they said, there is a sort of stereotyping that turns an entire group of people into a “deaf bloc” lacking dissimilarity among its components. On the other hand, based on the same dissimilarity, some believe that loyalty to the doctrine has overlapped with loyalty to the doctrine’s main state sponsor in Iran. The way some have dealt with the sect’s main state sponsor (Iran) is not based on their loyalty to it, but rather on the intention to annoy the state to which they belong (Saudi Arabia) and which sponsors another sect.

The book says that three stages have marked the relationship between Shiite groups in Saudi Arabia and Iran (pages 285-287). During the first stage, the hard-line movement in Iran protected the Shiite opposition movement, embracing radical revolutionary values. However, according to the book, this was only limited to protecting it and creating a suitable environment, without dictating the actions of these forces. In the second stage, ties were cut off because the state’s movement in Iran triumphed over the movement designed to spread the revolution across borders, which forced the Shiite Saudi opposition to leave Iran. At the same time, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard continued to support the so-called “Hezbollah in Saudi Arabia,” which means that division in Iran remained even at this stage. During the third stage, “Iranians, with their different centers of power, no longer have a real role in the Saudi Shiite situation.”

The relationship issue is very important here. The authors did not give it — as it seems to me — the research time it deserves, especially in terms of [collecting] relevant information. Their approach was mostly limited to an analysis based on assumptions and perceptions that may seem logical (and probably true). It was not based, however, on information regarding the movement’s forces and components and nature of their relationship, their history with centers of power in Iran and the transformations each has gone through.

As a result, the authors presumed that Iran did not have any political project with regard to Saudi Arabia. As stated in the book, “There was neither an Iranian political vision nor a clear political project when it came to the Shiite situation, and the Saudi situation in general.” In other words, Iran does not seek to find political influence in Saudi Arabia for the four following reasons, according to the authors.

The first is that Shiites represent a small and non-influential minority in Saudi Arabia. The second is that Iran is working on establishing influence in “vulnerable” countries where the central authority is weak, such as Iraq and Lebanon; the central authority in Saudi Arabia is quite strong. The third is Iran’s focus on the confrontation arenas with the United States and Israel; these arenas are not found in the Gulf, but rather in the Levant. The fourth is that Iran does not want to shoulder the burden of the Shiites in the Gulf. It wants to put full focus on areas where achievements can be made.

This analysis does not distinguish between the presence of “an Iranian project with regard to Saudi Arabia” and the attempt to have political influence within the kingdom. The absence of this influence, given the nature of Saudi Arabia and the circumstances prevailing at this stage, as the authors have said — truthfully — does not negate the presence of the first. Again, the authors have relied on logical analysis, not on documented information.

This analysis begs more than one question. Why is the main confrontation in the region between Saudi Arabia and Iran? Why is Iran excessively interfering in Iraq, Yemen and Bahrain? These are not only vulnerable zones that suffer from a weak central authority, but also areas where Shiite forces are active and that encircle Saudi Arabia from the north, south and east. Even in Syria, the central authority has regressed and has now become weaker and more dependent on Iran, not only by reason of the revolution, but also because of the sectarian similarity between them.

Given that there is a large Sunni majority in Syria, Iran takes up the risk and provides the regime with its full political and financial support. Iran is also providing military equipment and Shiite fighters to fight this majority. Syria happens also to be located on the northwest border of Saudi Arabia.

What does this all mean? First, being a sectarian state by virtue of the provisions of its Constitution and the nature of its role and alliances, Iran has a sectarian project for the region. Second, the main obstacle to this project is Saudi Arabia first and Egypt second, given their large surface areas and their significant regional influence. Third, the Iranian leadership is well aware that it is not possible to infiltrate Saudi Arabia and Egypt from the inside. This forced it to adopt a strategy of encirclement. Therefore, we may not say that there is no Iranian project with regard to Saudi Arabia.

This brings us back to the role of Shiite intellectuals and their political vision within the context of [current] developments and events. They often avoid any criticism — especially in public — toward Iran and its foreign policy. They may have reservations on some Iranian official positions, but they usually declare their reservations in private meetings only. It is at this point that their religion overlaps with their political orientation, which is contrary to their complaint about the same overlap occurring between the state’s positions and its policies. While some believe that their refraining from taking a critical stance toward Iran forces them to be reticent to criticize the Sunni state to which they belong, it is this very attitude that makes the situation more embarrassing. Some do not hesitate to excessively criticize the Sunni state — in particular Saudi Arabia — yet remain completely silent about Iran. The main reason for this inclination, as I mentioned, is probably religious affiliation and its impact on the political situation. Moreover, even if both Sunnis and Shiites believe that sectarianism poses a threat to national affiliation, there is no commitment to separate sectarianism and national affiliation in political positions.

In this case, Shiite intellectuals take a confusing position in terms of the relationship between religion and the state. They reject sectarianism at times, and condone it at other times. They are not the only ones to do this, but that's another issue. It is in everyone's interest to take one intellectual position regarding sectarianism in Iran, Saudi Arabia or elsewhere, and this position should be public. This is the way to confirm the credibility of the argument and the efficiency and comprehensiveness of the fight against this scourge that threatens everyone.

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