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New Texts Out Now: Toby Matthiesen, The Other Saudis: Shiism, Dissent, and Sectarianism

[Cover of Toby Matthiesen, [Cover of Toby Matthiesen, "The Other Saudis: Shiism, Dissent, and Sectarianism"]

Toby Matthiesen, The Other Saudis: Shiism, Dissent, and Sectarianism. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Toby Matthiesen (TM): I became interested in the issue of sectarianism in Syria and Lebanon, where I studied Arabic and spent several summers. I wanted to understand the historical context of sect-formation and at what times these markers of identity became important in the political process. During my MA at the School of Oriental and African Studies, when I was looking for a dissertation topic, I started to read about the Shi‘a in the Gulf. There was hardly any literature at the time on the Shi‘a in Saudi Arabia (the studies by Fouad Ibrahim and Laurence Louër had not been published yet). Also, the case of the Shi‘a of Saudi Arabia seemed to have a particular importance because of Saudi Arabia's position in the Islamic world and because of the Saudi sponsorship of anti-Shi‘i movements and polemics.  

I then started my PhD at SOAS in 2007 on "The Shia of Saudi Arabia: Identity Politics, Sectarianism, and the Saudi State." I carried out fieldwork in Saudi Arabia in 2008 and 2011, and did interviews with officials, as well as Shi‘i activists from all different political strands. I also visited the Eastern province, where the Shi‘a are largely based. However, the difficulty of carrying out long-term fieldwork in Saudi Arabia, and the transnational nature of the Shi‘a's political networks, made it imperative to broaden the scope of my fieldwork. I have explained this at the start of The Other Saudis as follows:

This book is the product of countless conversations, extensive fieldwork, and a close reading of textual sources. During my main period of fieldwork in Saudi Arabia, in 2008, discussing the histories and contemporary manifestations of being Shi‘i in Saudi Arabia was possible in a way that it would not be for much longer. The mid-2000s were characterized by national dialogues and a public recognition on the part of King Abdullah that the Shi‘a are an integral part of Saudi Arabia. Unlike in previous decades, particularly the most confrontational phase between 1979 and 1993, the history of Shi‘i dissent, and of discrimination against them, was a topic that some Saudis were willing to discuss. When I finished the doctorate on which this book is based in 2011, what is often simplistically called “the Shi‘a question” in Saudi Arabia was framed very differently, however. Shi‘a in the Eastern Province had staged mass protests for more rights, which undermined the notion that Saudi Arabia was somehow exempt from the fallout of the Arab uprisings. Research on Saudi Arabia, and particularly on a sensitive issue such as Shi‘i politics, is extremely difficult and sources are hard to come by. While I had the opportunity to carry out fieldwork across Saudi Arabia, including in various cities and villages of the Eastern Province, I broadened the geographical scope of my fieldwork considerably. I interviewed Saudi Shi‘a, opposition activists but also clerics, intellectuals, journalists and less politically active people in Europe, the United States, Bahrain, Kuwait, Syria, and Lebanon. Across these countries I also searched for opposition publications and local historiographical books on Saudi Shi‘i history. I found some on the outdoor book market in the Eastern Province city of Qatif, where one can buy books that are banned in Saudi Arabia for discussing Shi‘i religious beliefs or promoting historical narratives that contradict those of the rulers. I found them in Bahraini village bookshops; the owner of one of these bookshops has since been tortured to death as part of the crackdown on the 2011 uprising. I found them in the bustling alleys that lead up to the Shi‘i shrine of Sayyida Zeinab outside of Damascus, then still a preferred holiday location for Gulf Shi‘a and now a site of fierce fighting. I found some of the books in the Shi‘i libraries in Kuwait, in the vast second-hand bookshops off of Beirut’s cosmopolitan Hamra Street and in the Shi‘i publishing houses of Beirut’s southern suburbs, where most Saudi Shi‘i historical books are published. I found them on London’s Edgware Road, and in libraries and private archives in Britain and the United States.[1]

 J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

TM: On a theoretical level, the book addresses some of the literature on identity formation, collective identities, minorities, ethnic politics, and sectarianism. To explain when these political categories become salient, the book uses a historically grounded approach to the study of communal politics that is empirical and mainly focuses at the micro level. Engaging with the work of Seyla Benhabib, the goal is to understand the role of structures, while keeping in mind the use of political culture by elites. I also use Maurice Halbwachs' notion of the “collective memory” that is reenacted in religious rituals and processions, such as during the Muharram and Ashura rituals amongst the Shi‘a.

On the empirical level, the book tries to explain how the Shi‘a of Qatif and al-Ahsa came to see themselves as Shi‘a rather than something else, and what the role of the state, of identity entrepreneurs, historical narratives, and Shi‘i Islamist movements was in this process. The book makes a contribution to the literature on Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region, where the Shi‘i minorities have hitherto been largely discussed on a quite superficial level. Indeed, many histories of Saudi Arabia hardly mention the local Shi‘a, or do so just in passing. There have only been a handful of researchers who were ever allowed to travel to the Eastern Province, and with the exception of the Saudi Shi‘i opposition activist Fouad Ibrahim, there has never been a book-length study in a Western language.[2] But by and large, the book breaks new ground in many respects, particularly in the ways in which it analyzes the changing social structures in the Oasis towns and villages of Eastern Arabia. The role of the Shi‘i notable families, of the Shi‘i courts, of leftist and nationalist movements, and of Shi‘i militant movements such as Hizballah al-Hijaz and the supporters of Nimr al-Nimr, has not been outlined before. The few studies that exist have largely focused on the Shirazi movement and the uprising of 1979. But my access to the Saudi Shirazi leadership and to private archives of former leaders of the Shirazi movement has also allowed me to make a significant contribution to the history and factionalism of that movement and to the organizational structures and mobilization strategies of Shi‘i Islamist movements more broadly. 

The book also contributes to the literature on the formative first few years of the Iranian revolution, when Iran tried to export its revolution and factions in Iran did support the Gulf Shi‘a. These "exporters" of the revolution were largely the people around Mohammed Montazeri and Mehdi Hashemi, who were sidelined after the Iran-Contra affair in 1986. So the book also contributes to an analysis of the fragmented nature of the early Islamic republic of Iran and to its foreign policy making. Since 1979, changes in Saudi-Iranian relations impacted on the situation of Saudi Shi‘a, and the book contextualizes changes in these relations. While I outline the relationship of the Shi‘a to Iran (and Syria), I do not, however, claim that all the Shi‘a are somehow loyal to Iran because of their religious affiliation. 

Quite to the contrary, the book also highlights the diversity within Shi‘ism, by studying an Arab Shi‘i community in depth. There are many polemics surrounding Arab Shi‘ism, and the prominence of Iran as a player in the Shi‘i worlds since 1979 has to a certain extent obscured the importance of Arab Shi‘i intellectual and religious traditions. An issue of Saudi Shi‘a is that they are marginal both within their country and within the wider Shi‘i worlds. There are no Saudi Shi‘i grand ayatollahs today, even though up to the early twentieth century local clerics acted as ayatollahs for the local population and were seen as leading scholars across the Shi‘i worlds. Some of them made major contributions to Shi‘i intellectual history, such as Ahmad al-Ahsai, the founder of the Shaykhiyya.[3] But by and large, the Saudi Shi‘a are also at the periphery of the clerical networks in Najaf and Qom, particularly since a large part of Saudi Shi‘a are associated with the movement founded by Muhammad Mahdi al-Shirazi, which had Kerbala as their spiritual base and were viewed with suspicion in Najaf.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous research?

TM: As I have pointed out above, the book is a thoroughly revised version of my PhD. When I had defended my PhD in late 2011, I decided to write another book first, Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Spring that Wasn’t, in which I analyzed the protest movements that were emerging across the Gulf, in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, and Saudi Arabia. Sectarian Gulf, along with several articles I have written since 2011 on the protests in the Saudi Eastern Province, started as a concluding chapter to The Other Saudis that my publisher had encouraged me to write. But the situation became more complex, and sectarianism was used to both mobilize people and crush opposition movements in various countries. Therefore, I felt the need to write a whole book on the topic first, before returning to revising my PhD. I used some of the material I had collected during previous rounds of fieldwork for Sectarian Gulf. The detailed historical narratives of the Saudi Shi‘a case, however, I reserved for The Other Saudis. In many ways, then, the two books complement each other, with The Other Saudis outlining the historical struggle of the Shi‘a in Saudi Arabia, and Sectarian Gulf detailing the protest movements and sectarian politics across the Gulf since 2011.

My next research project analyzes the Global Cold War through the history of leftists and Arab nationalists in the Gulf states and in the wider Arabian Peninsula. During my research for The Other Saudis, I have become fascinated with this topic.

When I interviewed members of the old Shi‘i elite families, the urban notables of Qatif and al-Ahsa, they told me that they or their close relatives had been members of clandestine secular opposition movements. Even after having read most of the literature on Saudi Arabia, I was surprised to hear this. The literature mentions a number of strikes at the ARAMCO oil company in the 1950s, and there are a few passing references to some clandestine groups, but the literature concludes that they did not have much of an impact. But what I was hearing from my interlocutors was quite different, and much more diverse and interesting. There seemed to have been a plethora of groups, reflecting the various strands of Arab nationalism and leftist political thought in the Arab world and the global south, and their networks were more interesting and far-reaching than previously thought. I was told of reading groups, indoctrination circles, travels abroad for conferences and secret meetings, of strikes, demonstrations, and even an attack on the American consulate in Dhahran in 1967. And there was talk of several coup attempts by "progressive" officers that were foiled, but which if successful would have altered the course of regional and perhaps global history.

As I dug deeper, I became more and more interested in the Cold War period because the roots of the regional security architecture, and the strong alliance of Gulf oil and Western capitalism and American hegemony are to be found in this period. The repression of leftist and Arab nationalist movements in the Arabian Peninsula was therefore an imperative, and explains why Britain was so keen to subdue the Dhofar revolution, whose stated goal was not just to liberate Dhofar or Oman but the entire Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf.

In our contemporary understanding of the region, the focus on political Islam, on sectarianism and religious conflict, obscures the fact that the region had a long history of radical politics before the advent of Islamism. The Gulf states all experienced labor movements, strikes, mobilizations by clandestine leftist groups, or even armed uprisings from the 1940s onwards. Yet the history of the Left in the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula is largely unwritten, except for the case of South Yemen, and to a lesser extent the Dhufar revolution in Oman. And the transnational connections that linked these arenas of revolutionary politics to Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the Emirates, and Northern Oman are what interests me in particular.

I have made initial interviews with former leftist activists from the Gulf and have collected previously unexamined primary sources on clandestine leftist movements there. I will mainly focus on the period from the discovery and massive exploration of oil in the 1940s, through the period of intense labor upheaval and leftist mobilization in the 1950s and 1960s, to the defeat of leftist movements and the rise of the rentier states and political Islam in the 1970s. The regional focus of the book will largely be Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Oman, as well as former South Yemen. Together with recently declassified archival material, this forms the basis for an exciting book project that will contribute to the literatures on Empire, the Global Cold War, the politics of oil, and the Arab Left.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

TM: This is an academic book, and while I have changed quite a lot compared to my PhD (I have, for example, taken out a whole chapter at the start of the PhD that looked at Saudi Shi‘i historiography, a shorter and revised version of which is forthcoming with the International Journal of Middle East Studies), it remains a very detailed book that will mainly appeal to academics, students, and people interested in Saudi Arabia, Shi‘ism, Saudi-Iranian relations, collective identity formation, sectarianism, resource-rich economies and the politics of oil, and the situation of minorities in the Middle East.

But given the importance of Saudi religious politics, and the role of the Shi‘i factor and of anti-Shi‘ism in both Saudi religious discourse and in Saudi domestic and foreign policies, I think the book can also have a wider appeal. It could be relevant for people interested in the history of the Middle East and Islam, as well as the relationship between politics and religion more broadly.

J: What do you think is the greatest misconception about Saudi Shi'a that you hope your work corrects?

TM: Probably the greatest misconception about the Shi‘a, particularly amongst Saudis themselves, is that they are non-Arabs that have arrived recently in the Eastern Province and that they are loyal to Iran. This is a narrative that is promoted by Saudi media and historiography, particularly at times of crisis. As my book shows, the vast majority of the Shi‘a of Qatif and al-Ahsa are Arabs, and have been sedentary in these areas for centuries. This also means that many of them are no longer in the tribal system, or do not have a clear genealogy, as many other Saudis still claim to have. This contributes to their exclusion from the Saudi political economy. But while there have been networks of travel, visitation, commerce, and religious scholarship that connected Eastern Arabia to Iran, there is little evidence of Iranians settling in Qatif or al-Ahsa, as opposed to Bahrain, the Emirates, or Kuwait. This was partly due to the fact that Bahrain was at times an Iranian province and that the British empire facilitated migration from Iran to Kuwait, Bahrain, the Emirates, and Oman, and vice versa. But al-Ahsa and Qatif were under Saudi or Ottoman rule, and both these powers had bad relations with Iran and so mass migration was simply not possible. The strongest religious connections of the Shi‘a of Qatif and al-Ahsa were always to Kerbala and Najaf, which is where aspiring clerics went to study. In addition, many people from al-Ahsa settled in Kuwait and Basra, as well as in other cities of Iraq and Iran.

So Saudis will have to come to terms with the fact that the Shi‘a are indigenous, that they have a long intellectual and religious history, and that any alliances opposition groups have sought with outside powers were not because of some pre-disposed disloyalty but simply because they needed help in a struggle to fight discrimination. The book outlines the connections between the two major Saudi Shi‘i Islamist movements, the Shirazi movement and Hizballah al-Hijaz, with different factions in Iran. But it also shows how many other actors at times tried to capitalize on the situation.  

To quote from the book:

The politics of the Eastern Province and the Saudi Shi‘a were at times related to the foreign policies of Iraq, Syria, South Yemen, Egypt, Kuwait, the United Kingdom, and the United States, amongst others. The realities of Middle Eastern exile and opposition politics have at times pushed Shi‘i opposition activists into temporary alliances with external actors, even though the goals of these activists were largely local.[4]

Outside of Saudi Arabia, many people have never even heard that there is quite some religious diversity in the kingdom. I hope that my book contributes to a more open debate about the status of religious minorities in the country and to problematizing narratives that seek to portray Saudis as "Wahhabis" or "Najdis." While these are obviously characteristics that fit some Saudis, and are promoted by the state, there is huge geographical, religious, and cultural pluralism in the country. There are many "Other Saudis," if you like, and the Shi‘a are just one group of Other Saudis. A major challenge for Saudi Arabia is how the antagonism between state-sponsored religious nationalism and regional, sectarian, and tribal identities develops, and whether a synthesis of the two will emerge that can be inclusive rather than exclusive.

Excerpt from The Other Saudis: Shiism, Dissent and Sectarianism

From the Conclusion: “The Politics of Sectarianism”

The Other Saudis has shown that the study of communal politics and sectarianism needs to take a historical approach that gives people involved in communal politics agency. The prominence of sectarian identities in the Middle East is related to the nature of modern state building in the region, which often relied on cultural groups as key constituencies—be they ethnic, tribal or religious—and which is characterized by a strong centralization of power. In addition, many of these states, and particularly those in the Gulf, did not have a strong sense of unity. They did not try to foster such a sense of belonging amongst their citizens, at least not in earnest, until the late twentieth century. This is not to say that nationalism is a particularly desirable phenomenon, or that it needs to be at odds with strong sectarian identities. But the absence of a strong inclusive nationalism, and in the Saudi case the emphasis on a religious nationalism that per se excludes the Shi‘a, helps to explain the prominence of other collective identities. Until the mid-twentieth century, it would be difficult to speak of Saudi national identities, and those who were advocating Arab nationalism, including some of the leftist activists in the Eastern Province, were punished severely. While the leftists sought to overcome sectarian and religious identities, their defeat facilitated the emergence of Islamism. At the periphery of the country and as the preferred Other of Saudi religious nationalism, Shi‘a then sought refuge in their sectarian identities.

The alliance of local elites with a state that is fundamentally suspicious of Shi‘i Muslims set the stage for competition amongst local elites and political groups, a condition that played into the hands of those who divide and rule. Essentially, Shi‘i elites have tried for a century to deliver to their constituencies what the state never wanted to give them. And the state has been quite skillful at fostering infighting amongst various political strands—notables, leftists, Islamists. The development of strong Islamist movements—both Shi‘i and Sunni—since the 1970s made sectarianism more salient. If Islam becomes the main reference point for political activism, then the question of which sect one belongs to inevitably becomes more salient. While Islamist movements often have particular local agendas, they are also concerned with the affairs of the Islamic umma as a whole. And so Sunni and Shi‘i Islamisms are related to the international context, and that relation is key for the escalation of communal conflict.

Without the rise of transnational Islamist movements and the success of the Iranian Revolution in 1979 Saudi Shi‘i politics would have played out differently (but that does not mean that sectarian discrimination against them would have stopped). While the Iranian Revolution gave hope to Gulf Shi‘a and spurred them to become more politically active, it soured relations between Gulf Shi‘a and their Sunni co-nationals for a generation. The history of Iranian assistance to Gulf Shi‘i opposition groups continues to be used by Gulf regimes to discredit domestic political claims by Shi‘i groups. But the experiences of secular opposition groups in the mid-twentieth century showed that Iran was not the only country providing assistance to Saudi opposition activists. The politics of the Eastern Province and the Saudi Shi‘a were at times related to the foreign policies of Iraq, Syria, South Yemen, Egypt, Kuwait, the United Kingdom, and the United States, amongst others. The realities of Middle Eastern exile and opposition politics have at times pushed Shi‘i opposition activists into temporary alliances with external actors, even though the goals of these activists were largely local.

Still, it is difficult to detach the post-1979 history of the Gulf Shi‘a from Saudi-Iranian relations, especially as long as both countries continue to portray themselves as leaders of the Islamic world and of Sunni and Shi‘a, respectively. After 2011 Saudi-Iranian relations reached yet another low point, and the escalating rhetoric and the extent of Saudi efforts to block democratization across the Gulf and prevent the empowerment of Shi‘a in Bahrain set very clear limits to the improvement of the situation of Saudi Shi‘a. Sectarian relations in Saudi Arabia worsened after the riots in Medina in 2009, the war against the Yemeni Houthi rebels in 2009/2010, and the Saudi intervention in Bahrain. Increasingly, Saudi Arabia used sectarianism as a tool for regime survival and power projection abroad.

[Excerpted from The Other Saudis: Shiism, Dissent and Sectarianism (pp. 215-17), part of Cambridge Middle East Studies, by Toby Matthiesen. Reprinted with the permission of the author and of Cambridge University Press. Copyright © 2015 Toby Matthiesen. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]


[1] See pp. xiii-xiv.

[2] There is a detailed book by another Saudi Shi‘i opposition activist, Hamza al-Hasan, in Arabic.

[3] I just published a long article on the Shaykhiyya, “Mysticism, Migration and Clerical Networks: Ahmad al-Ahsaʾi and the Shaykhis of al-Ahsa, Kuwait and Basra,” in: Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 34, no. 4 (2014).

[4] See p. 216.

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