September 3, 2009

I. Summary

A pilgrimage of Saudi Shia to Medina in February 2009 to observe the anniversary of the Prophet Muhammad's death led to clashes between the pilgrims and Saudi security forces. Those forces included the non-uniformed religious police, which is staunchly Sunni and opposed to what they consider the idolatrous innovations of Shia rituals of commemorating special holidays and making visits to graves. The immediate cause of the Medina clashes was the filming on February 20 of Shia women pilgrims by a man believed to belong to the religious police. The clashes continued in the area of the Baqi' cemetery in Medina over a five-day period, and resulted in the arrest of tens of pilgrims. The Medina clashes and subsequent events in the Eastern Province stoked the sharpest manifestation of long-standing sectarian tensions that the kingdom has experienced in years.

The incidents at the Baqi' cemetery reflected in part these long-standing tensions, but they were also an outlet for anger among the Shia (who are 10-15 percent of the population) over systematic discrimination at the hands of the government in education, the justice system, and, especially, religious freedom. They also face exclusion in government employment. The government for its part reacted with repressive measures of arrest and a clampdown on public airing of Shia grievances rather than seeking dialogue to prevent further conflict.

In late February and early March largely peaceful demonstrations in solidarity with those arrested in the Medina clashes took place in the heavily Shia Eastern Province, producing a crackdown by the security forces. The kingdom does not allow any form of demonstrations, even peaceful ones.  A Shia preacher in 'Awwamiyya known for his vocal opposition to Saudi policies, Nimr al-Nimr, suggested in a Friday sermon on March 13 that his coreligionists consider secession from Saudi Arabia if their rights were not respected. The security forces' hunt for al-Nimr, who went into hiding, resulted in further Shia protests supporting the preacher, and a further crackdown.

Security officers arrested more than 50 people in the Eastern Province, including children, for participating in the demonstrations. More than two dozen were detained until July 1. Royal amnesties for detainees, a halt to arbitrary arrests after March, and pronouncement of loyalty to the state by moderate Shia helped deescalate the situation in the following months.

Nevertheless, underlying discrimination has risen. Since the February-March events, authorities have intensified ongoing restrictions on Shia communal life. Since 2008 the authorities have arrested and threatened the owners of Shia private communal prayer halls in Khobar to extract pledges to close them. Since 2001 the authorities in Ahsa' have imposed extrajudicial prison sentences on leaders of communal prayers and on persons selling articles used in Shia religious ceremonies such as `Ashura' and Qarqi'un, which remain prohibited in many Saudi Shia communities.

These repressive measures have fueled a lingering sentiment of discrimination among Shia. They observe how the government tolerates inflammatory and intolerant statements by Saudi Sunni clerics directed toward the Shia, while preventing the Shia even from simple acts of religious worship such as praying together. Underlying state discrimination against Shia includes a justice system based on religious law that follows only Sunni interpretations, and an education system that excludes Shia from teaching religion, and Shia children from learning about their Islamic creed. The sectarian divide, and Saudi state and Sunni community hostility and suspicion toward Saudi Shia, reflects not just religious intolerance but also political tensions arising from the elevated profile of Shia politics in the broader region, from Shia Hezbollah in Lebanon to Shia dominance over Iraqi politics and fears over the designs by Shia-dominated Iran for the Shia population of the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, as crown prince in 2003, initiated National Dialogues between the Shia and Sunnis, among others, but little has come of them. In 2008 the king led the call for tolerance between world religions at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, but neglected to promote tolerance for Saudi Arabia's Shia minority at home.

The Saudi government should urgently address the underlying reasons for sectarian tension, and end systematic discrimination against the Shia.

Recommendations to the Government of Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia should establish:

  • A commission of investigation, under the governmental Human Rights Commission and with participation from the Bureau of Investigation and Public Prosecutions, to investigate the circumstances leading to acts of violence by protestors and by security officials from February 20 to 24 around the area of the Baqi' cemetery in Medina. It should further investigate the lawfulness of arrests and detention arising from the events in Medina and from the February and March protests in Safwa, 'Awwamiyya, and Qatif. It should prosecute those suspected to be involved in unlawful acts of violence, and discipline officials who ordered or carried out arbitrary arrests. The commission should hear eyewitnesses to the events and make its findings public, and should have the power to order compensation to be paid to those who suffered unlawful violence or detention at the hands of state authorities.
  • A commission of equal citizenship, under the National Dialogue Center, and with a wide participation, including members of the Shura Council, the Human Rights Commission and the National Society for Human Rights, elected local councilors, and tribal, religious and community leaders of the Eastern Province. The Commission should consider recommending a national institution on discrimination, as suggested by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The Commission should explore ways to:
    • Protect freedom of worship for the Shia, especially in areas with a high Shia population, including freedom in the building and upkeep of mosques and husseiniyyas, printing, importing, and distribution of religious material, and the holding of public religious celebrations.
    • Protect the freedom for parents to ensure their children receive a religious education in accordance with their beliefs, and for children to be able to choose and practice their own religion. This should include a right at school to abstain from or opt out of Sunni religious instruction that is contrary to Shia beliefs, and the right, wherever possible (and at a minimum in all areas where Shia form a significant percentage of the population), to receive religious instruction according to Shia beliefs on par with what Sunni pupils receive. Exercise of that right should entail allowing Shia to teach religion in schools.
    • Ensure equality in employment and access to institutions of higher learning, including in the security services, high ministerial positions, local, provincial and the Shura Council, and military academies.
    • Ensure equal access to justice, including by mandating that all persons are equal before the law regardless of their sectarian identity, and that qualified Shia jurists can work as judges in regular courts, especially in areas with a high Shia population.
  • A commission on holy places, to carry forward the Mekka June 2008 interfaith initiative organized by the Muslim World League, to explore ways to share space for religious worship in Mekka and Medina among adherents of different Muslim creeds while respecting Saudi Arabia's dominant religious practices. The commission should pay special attention to diverse staffing and appropriate training for security guards and officials of the Commission to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice operating in such shared space for worship.

Saudi Arabia should engage its high religious officials, such as the office of the mufti, the Council for Senior Religious Scholars, and the Ministry for Islamic Affairs, Preaching, and Religious Guidance to rebut religiously intolerant speech by officials and other influential voices.


Saudi authorities have not granted Human Rights Watch access to freely conduct in-country research since a November-December 2006 research mission to the kingdom. Human Rights Watch staff visiting in May 2007, March 2008, and May 2009 remained tightly circumscribed in their official and private meetings.

Human Rights Watch researchers visited the Eastern Province in February and December 2006, meeting with roughly two dozen Shia intellectuals and victims of human rights abuses. We also met with Eastern Province Shia in Bahrain in December 2007, and with Medina Shia in Riyadh in May 2007.

Due to the government-imposed barriers preventing Human Rights Watch from conducting in-country research since 2006, for its more up-to-date information this report relies on telephone interviews with Saudi Shia human rights activists and ordinary Saudi Shia who participated in the Medina protests and clashes or in the Safwa or 'Awwamiyya protests, and with religious leaders chiefly in Khobar and Ahsa', as well as on telephone interviews and email communications with Saudi Sunni and Shia human rights activists living in the Eastern Province. To protect those we interviewed from retaliation, we have withheld names or used pseudonyms for our sources, unless they indicated a willingness to be named.

On August 26, 2009, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to the Saudi government enquiring about any investigations into the Baqi' cemetery events and the Eastern Province protests and arrests, and what steps the kingdom had taken to address discrimination in religious worship, education, employment, and the justice system. As of September 3, we had not received a reply.