Last Updated: Friday, 28 August 2015, 14:50 GMT

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Saudi Arabia : Overview

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2007
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Saudi Arabia : Overview, 2007, available at: [accessed 28 August 2015]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


Saudi Arabia borders Yemen, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain (by a bridge link), Kuwait, Iraq and Jordan. It also stretches from the Arabian/Persian Gulf in the east to the Red Sea in the West.


Main languages: Arabic

Main religions: Sunni, Shii, Zaydi and Isma'ili Islam. Christianity, Hinduism and other religions amongst the migrant workers

Main minority groups: Shi'is (especially Twelver or Ithna'ashari) (15%, Council on Foreign Relations,, Isma'ilis 700,000 and Zaydis Muslims

About 15 per cent of Saudis are Shi'i, mainly in the Eastern Province or 'Ash Sharqiyah' (in particular the al-Hasa region), but with substantial communities elsewhere as well.

There are approximately 700,000 Isma'ilis in the region of Najran.

The Zaydis in the country include citizens living on the borders with Yemen as well as migrant workers from Yemen.

The population of Saudi Arabia is around 27 million, with around 5.5 million being non-nationals (FAO, 2005).

Migrant workers constitute the majority of these non-nationals. A significant proportion work as domestic workers and do not enjoy sufficient legal protection. Migrant workers cannot get residency and their stay is always considered temporary.


Abdul Aziz bin Abdul-Rahman Al Saud (later also known as 'Ibn Saud'), began his campaign to reclaim the Al Saud's ancestral domains in Najd in 1902. By 1926 he had expanded his control beyond Najd into al hasa in the east and the Hejaz in the west. The independence of these areas under Abdul Aziz's rule was recognised by treaty in 1927. These various regions came to be unified as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932. Saudi Arabia has been ruled as a monarchy by the Sauds since that time. This was accomplished in part through the Al Saud's alliance with the Wahhabi religious school, although the latter's powers have on occasion been curbed by Abdul Aziz – a pattern that remains in evidence today.

The monarch carries the title 'Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques' (i.e. Mecca and Medina). This close relationship between a particular interpretation of Islam and politics is deeply engraved in all aspects of governance in Saudi Arabia. This is reflected, for example, in the speech of King Fahd at the time the 1992 Saudi Basic law was issued "This State was set upon a clear course of politics and government. It was committed to propagating Islam and to fostering a sense of community. This is the course of Islam, the Creed and the Sharia. Ever since the establishment of this righteous state, the people of the country have enjoyed happiness, security and unity of opinion. They have been living in harmony and fraternal cooperation, after a prolonged period of fear and division."


The 1992 Saudi Basic Law establishes the structure of government in Saudi Arabia and it proclaims a 'bill of rights' for citizens. It reiterates the inseparability, in the regime's perspective, of Islamic justice from Saudi rule. For example, Article 7: "The regime derives its power from the Holy Qur'an and the Prophet's Sunnah which rule over this and all other State Laws." It also emphasises that the monarchy shall always remain in the Saud family (Article 5b) and outlines the extensive powers of the monarch (Articles 55-69).

There were expectations for political reforms as a result of international attention and the presence of international troops in Saudi Arabia for the liberation of Kuwait, subsequent to its invasion by Kuwait in 1990-91, yet these have proved somewhat optimistic. Local elections – for men only – were allowed for the first time in early 2005 but only for half of the members of the municipal councils. The elections were for half of the seats. The municipal councils are under the charge of the governor of each region – Saudi Arabia's 13 regions having 179 municipal councils in all. The members and chairman of the national 'parliament', the Consultative Council's (Majlis al-Shura) are all appointed by the monarch.

Semi-traditional participation, through access to those wielding power and patronage, continues in the form of majlis, or open meetings, with sheikhs and princes from the local to the national level – all the way up to the King. Yet these function more as a means to dispense patronage, gather information, and pre-empt complaints, than as a means for political participation.

Saudi Arabia has been hit by a number of terrorist attacks, mainly targeting foreigners and non-Muslims, since 2003. The government appears to have been able to regain control, in part through co-optation and the population's disenchantment with the terror tactics. Societal tensions include unemployment and different perspectives on democracy, modernisation and the role of women.

Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples

The Shi'is suffer social and institutionalised discrimination. Although they are allowed to use their own legal tradition on certain matters, however there are only two Shi'i judges serving the large population of Shi'is, especially considering their population in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. Shi'is are regularly arrested, detained and abused by the security forces; Shi'i books are banned, the testimony of Shi'is is given less weight in courts, and in 2005 only two of the 120 members of the Saudi Majlis al-Shura were Shi'i. There have also been a number of episodes of Shi'i-Sunni clashes in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, the most recent being in 2000. However, there have been several moves to try to reduce tensions. In 1993 an understanding was reached between King Fahd and the Shi'i opposition movement in al-Hasa, leading both to increased resources being channelled to Shi'i areas, and reduced tension. Since the de facto take-over of power by Crown Prince Abdullah after King Fahd's stroke in 1995, further intermittent gestures were made, and since he became King in August 2005 this has gathered pace.

In the National Dialogue sessions held under Abdullah's auspices since 2004, religious leaders of the Shia community for the first time received a national platform alongside others – a major development in this Wahhabi Kingdom, given the view of some Wahhabis that the Shia are not Muslims at all and should properly be beyond the pale. Saudi Arabia's Shi'is responded to Abdullah's call for national dialogue between the two communities, and petitioned him directly with their requests in September 2005. These include the release of political prisoners and more political representation for the Shi'is. The International Crisis Group warned in its September 2005 report that while a return to outright conflict between Saudi Arabia's Shi'is and Sunnis was unlikely, tensions were higher than at any time since 1979 and there were no grounds for complacency. Nevertheless, Shi'is were able to observe Ashura publicly without interference in February 2006. The Shia-Sunni tensions are clearly fuelled by events beyond Saudi Arabia, such as in both Iraq and Iran.

There is little freedom of religion or belief in Saudi Arabia, even in private and even for Muslims. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom has designated Saudi Arabia as a country of particular concern since 2004 due to its "systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief" (USCIRF annual report, May 2006). Ismailis, for example, have had mosques closed on the charge of practicing 'sorcery' according to the USCIRF, and 100 were imprisoned for protesting this closure. Imprisonments exist on charges such as blasphemy, apostasy and witchcraft.

Copyright notice: © Minority Rights Group International. All rights reserved.

Search Refworld