EER recently sat down with Dr. Abdullah F. Alrebh, Assistant Professor of Sociology of Religion and Sociological Theory at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, to discuss the radical Shia Islamist groups in Saudi Arabia and their relationships with actors outside the Kingdom like the theocracy in Iran.
QUESTION: How would you explain the Shia presence in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) to someone who is not familiar with it?
DR ALREBH: First of all, let me explain the term Shia in the beginning, as they are three schools of Shia Muslims—just as there are four schools of Sunni Muslims. The three Shia sects are: Zaidi, Ismaili, and Jaafari. When you hear the term “Shia” without more details, usually it refers to Jaafari, also called Twelvers or Imamis.
In Saudi Arabia, there are some groups of Zaidi and Ismaili Shia living in Najarn. The Twelver Shias live in the Eastern Province, most of them in Qatif and Al-Ahsa. In addition, there is a group of Twelver Shias living in western Saudi Arabia, especially Medina. According to some sources, Shia Muslims comprise between 10% and 15% of the total population.
What level of popular support does radical Shiism enjoy in the area?
It is hard to determine the level of popularity of the radical fringes—for either Sunni or Shia—because the Saudi government in general takes such matters very seriously [and acts against them]. However, there are some Shia in Saudi Arabia who hold radical attitudes, just like their Sunni peers.
Did the Shias create Islamist groups? What are their activities?
Back to early 1980s, right after the Iranian Islamic Revolution, a group of Saudi Shia youth started their politicized Islamic movement called the “Organization for the Islamic Revolution in the Arabian Peninsula,” which followed the line of Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammad al-Husayni al-Shirazi (d. 2001). Most of group members were dissidents outside the Kingdom until they returned in 1993 under an official pardon issued by King Fahd (d. 2005) that gave amnesty to all those who had not been involved directly in violent activities.
Another politicized Shia Islamic movement was Ansar Khat al-Imam, inspired by the ideology of [the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran] Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (d. 1989).
Who are Ansar Khat al-Imam and why are they called Saudi Hezbollah?
The term “Ansar Khat al-Imam” originally referred to the Iranian students who attacked the American Embassy in Tehran in November 1979. The term has been extended as a brand name to include all Shia activists who adopt the lessons and ideology of Khomeini.
The term “Hezbollah” originally referred to a faction of the Iranian elite after Khomeini’s Revolution had seized power and the term was later applied to the Lebanese party that was formally announced in 1985.
In Saudi Arabia, there are many groups considered “Ansar Khat al-Imam,” as they have adopt Khomeini’s thoughts at religious and cultural levels, and within that stream there was a secret, militant organization, which was active in late 1980s and early 1990s, that was called “Hezbollah al-Hejaz” or “Saudi Hezbollah”.
What are their international links and networks?
From the name [Hezbollah], one can see the association with Iran and its armed groups who adopt the ideology of Khomeini such as the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Iraqi militias [such as Kataib Hezbollah]. Unfortunately, there are no details regarding Saudi Hezbollah itself, who their members are, or which agencies they work with on a daily basis. All we can find is strong suspicion of an association between the organization and the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). This hypothesis is reasonable, since the IRGC is the Iranian agency that works with all the militias associated with Iran worldwide.
Were and/or are Shia radicals involved in Saudi rehabilitation initiatives, for example those carried out in jail and the Bin Nayef Rehabilitation Center?
Yes, the Care Rehabilitation Center covers all prisoners who get involved in radical activities in the country. Shia prisoners are part of those who benefit from the program. The progressive part of this program in the Eastern Province, where most of the Shia prisoners are located, is the new style of rehabilitation by getting assistance from professional psychologists and social workers, rather than clergy.
What are your outlooks about the evolution of Shia radicalism in the region?
After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the armed activities carried out [within Saudi Arabia] by different groups, including radical Islamists—both Sunni and Shia—became a fact that no one could deny. Observers have been more concerned about Shia radicalization because it is kind of a new experience in the region, compared with the Sunni radicalization that has a deeper history because of issues going back to the Afghan war [with the Soviets in the 1980s].
My take on the future of Shia radicalization in general is: it will be remain as there are persistent thoughts of bringing historical stories to the present day. As well as Iran, the major actors of this radicalization are some Arab refugees in the United Kingdom led by Yasser al-Habib, who keeps cursing the admired Sunni figures, and the argument with Shia figures who disagree with his doctrine spreads the issue even further. That said, the “London Shias” are radical in words only; this might in time provoke some Sunnis and/or mobilize some Shiites, but they are not taking armed action in the name of this discourse right now.
Radical Shia groups are getting more popular in Iraq, Syria, and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries because they act like avengers. Still, the violence justified by fatwa is difficult in the Shia realm. The exception is Iraq, since the Shia militia groups can justify their activities by claiming to be fighting ISIS [the Islamic State or Daesh] and other radical Sunni groups.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this interview represent the speaker alone.