Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has recently made moves likely to appeal to the country’s Shia minority. This includes neutering the country’s once-powerful religious establishment, which has spewed anti-Shia vitriol and demonized Shia religious practices for decades, as well as changes to the 2018-19 Saudi school curriculum to remove some anti-Shia images and rhetoric.
But some of the worst abuses of the Saudi state of its Shia citizens and their ability to practice their religion remain unchanged.
Saudi Shia in the Eastern Province town of Qatif observed this stark reality first-hand over the past week, as authorities banned certain public aspects of their annual Ashura commemoration. Activists told Human Rights Watch that this year Shia cannot broadcast rituals inside some of their Husseiniyas (religious gathering spaces) via loudspeakers, and Saudi authorities have removed food stands and vendors that sell clothes, books, and flags. It also appears that public mourning rituals have been restricted to certain hours.
Saudi Arabia’s education reforms also did not remove all anti-Shia rhetoric in textbooks, especially at the secondary school level. One secondary textbook, for example, contains a section that condemns “building mosques and shrines on top of graves,” a common Shia and Sufi practice. The same text also refers to Shia using the derogatory moniker rafidha, meaning “rejectionists.”
Furthermore, dozens of Saudi Shia remain in prison, merely for participating in protests since 2011 calling for full equality and basic rights for all Saudis. Prosecutors recently filed charges and requested the death penalty against five Eastern Province activists, including female human rights activist Israa al-Ghomgham. While there are many Shia on death row accused of acts of violence but convicted in patently unfair trials, authorities have alleged no such acts against al-Ghomgham and the other four. Rather, they are seeking to execute them on charges such as “incitement to protest” and “chanting slogans hostile to the regime.”
Saudi Arabia cannot solve its Shia discrimination problem with baby steps. Rather, authorities should allow Shia to build houses of worship and freely engage in their traditions and practices, remove all demonization of Shia in textbooks, and release all Shia languishing in jail on protest-related crimes convicted in unfair trials.