Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 May 2016, 11:51 GMT

Assessment for Shi'is in Saudi Arabia

Publisher Minorities at Risk Project
Publication Date 31 December 2003
Cite as Minorities at Risk Project, Assessment for Shi'is in Saudi Arabia, 31 December 2003, available at: [accessed 24 May 2016]
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 Facts
Area:    1,960,582 sq. km.
Capital:    Riyadh
Total Population:    20,786,000 (source: U.S. Census Bureau, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

It is unlikely that the situation for Saudi Shi'a will improve in the near term as the government receives only slight diplomatic pressure to clean up its human rights record, and the pressures that are existent seldom have any teeth behind them due to Saudi Arabia's geopolitical importance in the Gulf region as well as its abundant oil reserves. Because the Shi'a population is viewed as the most fundamentalist segment of its population by the Saudi monarchy, it is also continually perceived as a threat to its political power. Any incentive for the government to alter its exclusionary policies and recognize Shi'a Islam in Saudi Arabia as an official religion would likely require a link to political assurances from the Shi'a community.

Analytic Summary

The Shi'a Muslims are the largest minority group in Saudi Arabia, and live in the Eastern province of the country in which they constitute one-third of the population (GROUPCON=3). Most Shi'a in the Eastern province live in the urban areas, such as Al-Qatif and Hasa. They share other Saudis' ethnic Arab background (CULDIFX1 = 0) and Arabic language (CULDIFX2 = 0), but they have distinct religious beliefs from the majority Wahhabi Sunni Muslims (CULDIFX4 = 2), being more comparable in sect to Iran's Shi'a population. The major division between the Sunni and Shi'a faiths derives from a dispute dating back to the 7th century over who were the true successors to Muhammad, Islam's original and primary prophet. Adding to Shi'a difficulties in Saudi Arabia are the tenants of the Wahhabi sect, which rejects all other Islamic schools of thought.

Shi'a in Saudi Arabia are currently subject to a plethora of political, cultural, and economic discriminatory policies. They are sharply restricted against political organizing, do not have a right to free expression, face employment discrimination in both the public and private sectors, and are restricted from equal access to the Saudi police/military or high office (POLIC1/4/6/803 = 2). Members of the Shi'a minority are also the objects of officially sanctioned religious discrimination. Prior to 1990, the Government prohibited public processions by Shi'a during the Islamic month of Muharram and restricted other processions and congregations to designated areas in the major Shi'a cities (CULPO1/4/896-00 = 2). Since 1990 the authorities have permitted the celebration of the Shi'a holiday of Ashura in the eastern province city of Qatif, provided that the celebrants do not undertake large, public marches or engage in self-flagellation (a traditional Shi'a practice). These celebrations are monitored heavily by the police. When the Shi'a have protested (PROT00 = 3), unrestrained force has usually been employed against participants. For example, hundreds of members of the Shi'a Ismaili community of Najran province, including possible prisoners of conscience, were arrested following demonstrations and clashes in April 2000 in protest against the forcible closure of their mosque by security forces. Many of those arrested were apparently held incommunicado and their whereabouts were unknown (REP1900 = 3). Recently, the Shi'a community has focused on more symbolic protest, such as the petition submitted to the Crown Prince in 2003 by a group of Shi'a calling for more democratic reforms, equal rights, and an end to religious, economic, and political discrimination against Shi'a (PROT03 = 2). The Saudi government also has undertaken repressive actions by randomly taking Shi'a sheikhs into custody for violating so-called restrictions on Shi'a religious practices (REP02/03 = 3). Amnesty International reports that interrogation and torture are common in these cases, and are often used until a confession is signed (REP05 = 3). In the economic realm, Shi'a are much worse off than the rest of Saudi Arabia's Sunni population. They are socially excluded from better jobs and receive less government funding.

Shi'a in Saudi Arabia are represented by several organizations. The Organization for Islamic Revolution / The Reform Movement: The Organization for Islamic Revolution was a Shi'a organization founded in the 1960s and declared publicly in 1975. Its original goal was to overthrow the Saudi Government and replace it with an Islamic government. In 1990, shortly after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait it changed its goals and its strategy. Now called The Reform Movement (the name change was primarily to distance itself from Hizbollah), it considered itself the local movement representing Saudi Arabia's Shi'a minority and sought to get its constituency's grievances addressed through political action and media pressure. Its grievances and demands include: giving Shi'a Islam the status of a recognized Islamic sect; freedom of worship including the right to build mosques and practice religious rights; Shi'a religious education in state schools in Shi'a areas; freedom of expression including the right to publish and import Shi'a books; freedom to establish Shi'a seminaries and religious schools; the cessation of the government's anti-Shi'a campaign; Shi'a religious courts to be granted the same powers as Sunni courts over matters of marriage, divorce and inheritance; equal opportunity, especially in universities and employment; and the improvement of the infrastructure in Shi'a areas. The movement primarily operates from abroad. The Sheikh Hassan Saffar has been the leader of The Organization for Islamic Revolution as well as The Reform Movement from the organization's inception.

It is unclear when Hizbollah (The Party of God) was founded but it was probably after the Iranian revolution of 1979. This organization is run by followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini and advocates the overthrow of the Saudi government in favor of an Iran-style Islamic state. While Hizbollah has had its disagreements with The Reform Movement, no instances of conflict between the two organizations have come to light. Estimates in 1996 by one Saudi Shi'a place membership at about 250 active members, with about 1,000 additional supporters in the country (Washington Post, November 4, 1996).

The Arab Socialist Action Party was founded in the 1970s by former Shi'a members of the Arab nationalist movement. Other than this, little information is available about the Party.


Metz, Helen Chapin Saudi Arabia: a Country Study, Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, 1993.

Piscatori, James P. "The Formation of the Saudi Identity: A Case Study of the Utility of Transnationalism" in John F. Stack Jr. (ed) Ethnic Identities in a Transitional World, Westport: Greenwood, 1981. pp. 105-39.

Shaw, John A. & David E. Long Saudi Arabian Modernization: The Impact of Change on Stability, Washington D.C.: Praeger, 1982.

Minorities at Risk Phase I codesheet and Summary.

Nexis/Lexis: All news files 1990 to 2003., Various Reports, 2001-2003.

US State Department Human Rights Reports, 2001-2003.

Search Refworld