On November 3, unidentified gunmen opened fire on a group of Shia men in the village of al-Dalwa, in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, killing at least seven and wounding dozens. The attackers gunned them down as they left ceremonies commemorating Ashura, a Shia religious ceremony. Saudi security sources later told the Saudi Gazette that the leader of the gunmen had previously slipped back into the kingdom after fighting in Iraq and Syria.
Saudi officials have roundly condemned the attack and reportedly arrested the perpetrators after a fierce firefight that left two gunmen and two police dead. But they should go further by urgently confronting the pernicious and long-standing discrimination against the country’s Shia citizens that has fed the sectarian impulses leading to such horrific attacks.
Since 2008, Human Rights Watch has documented the ways in which the Sunni-majority Saudi state systematically discriminates against Shia citizens, including in public education, the justice system, religious freedom, and employment. Shia citizens rarely receive permission to build their own mosques. The government has never appointed Shia to be ministers.
Contributing to the discrimination is hate speech from senior religious figures directed at Shia that Saudi officials fail to condemn. Instead, officials have jailed influential Shia citizens such as prominent cleric Tawfiq al-Amer who peacefully criticize this hate speech and discrimination – al-Amer received an eight-year sentence for his “crimes.” On the day of the al-Dalwa massacre, a Saudi court convicted human rights activist Mikhlif al-Shammari and sentenced him to two years in prison and 200 lashes for, in part, visiting prominent Shia figures in the Eastern Province as a goodwill gesture.
In 2011 and 2012, authorities jailed hundreds of protesters in the Eastern Province who were calling for an end to the pervasive discrimination, and courts handed down harsh sentences against dozens convicted of participating. Human Rights Watch reviewed some of the judgments and found flagrant due process violations, including broadly framed charges that do not resemble recognizable crimes, denial of access to lawyers, long pretrial detentions, and quick dismissal of torture complaints. A death sentence handed down by the terrorism court against prominent Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr on October 15 has done nothing to calm Shia community concerns.
The government’s pervasive pattern of outright discrimination and mistreatment feeds dangerous sectarian ideologies and signals that the state considers Shia to be outside the fabric of Saudi society. If Saudi officials really want justice for the victims of this week’s murderous rampage, they should take steps to end long-term, systematic discriminatory practices that render Shia second-class Saudi citizens.