Who Are Saudi Arabia’s Shia Population and Why Are They Protesting?

Published July 30th, 2017 - 08:35 GMT
A woman holds a picture of the executed Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr infront of a Saudi policeman during a protest. (AFP/File)
A woman holds a picture of the executed Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr infront of a Saudi policeman during a protest. (AFP/File)

Save for the uproar surrounding the imminent execution of a young Saudi protester who was set to go University in the US, there has been very little media coverage of the current Saudi siege on its own Shia population.

The town of Al-Awamiya in the eastern Al-Qatif region has been a focal point of the continued clashes between Shia protesters and the increasingly strong-handed regime. Reports suggest that since May, the entire town has been besieged by state security forces. Unverified footage uploaded to social media suggests that the town currently resembles a war zone.


There have been multiple reports of government forces shooting and killing unarmed civilians, and many protesters have “disappeared”, presumed to be arrested or killed. Several policemen have also reportedly been killed.

The Sunni regime claims that they are fighting “terrorists” who are threatening security in the state. They also claim that 14 protesters set to be executed imminently are guilty of terrorism related crimes and spying for Iran.



Tensions in Al-Awamiya escalated after it was announced that the regime would demolish a four-century old Shia neighborhood in order to stop “terrorists” from hiding inside the buildings.

Who are Saudi's Shia population?

While no official numbers exist, it is estimated that approximately 10-15% of Saudis are Shia, many of whom live in the East of the country in areas such as the Al-Qatif region.

Since the founding of the fundamentalist Wahhabi-Sunni kingdom, the Shia populace has faced extreme persecution. Ibn Abdul-Wahhab, who alongside Muhammad bin Saud founded the first Saudi state, the Emirate of Diriyah, did not consider the Shia to be real Muslims.

As a religious group, they are heavily discriminated against in numerous aspects of life in the kingdom. They are victims of regular media slander in the kingdom, and often excluded from political dialogues. hundreds have reportedly been rounded up and imprisoned or executed over the years.



Various high-ranking clerics throughout Saudi Arabia’s history have sanctioned the killing and persecution of Shias, including a former Grand Mufti of the kingdom, Abd al-Aziz ibn Baz, who labelled them as apostates. Apostasy—the act of leaving one’s faith—is a capital punishment in Saudi Arabia.

Human Rights Watch released a report in 2009 which detailed the level of discrimination—minor and major—faced by the Shia minority, highlighting that Shia children learn from Sunni teachers that they are unbelievers and that Sunni judges often dismiss Shia witnesses to crimes.

The discrimination must be understood in the context of the purist Saudi version of Wahhabi-Sunni Islam, as well as the near-constant tension between Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran. The conflict between the two oil-rich nations ought not to be simply explained by highlighting religious differences, however sectarianism does play a major role. In both Yemen and Syria, the Iranian and Saudi regimes support Shia and Sunni militant groups respectively.

A lack of media coverage has meant that news from inside Shia areas of the Sunni kingdom is mostly released in the form of unverified reports on social media. 


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