Two awakenings

Welcome to the latest edition of Riyadh Bureau, a newsletter for people interested in Saudi Arabia — written by me, Ahmed Al Omran. If you are not a subscriber, please use the button below to subscribe. Send your feedback to alomran@hey.com or via Twitter: @ahmed


Nasrah al-Ahmed most recently spoke with her son Ali on Wednesday.

“I have just received a brief call from my dear son. He sends peace, love and longing,” she wrote on Twitter. “As I listened to his words that he repeats on every call, my heart and soul are filled with patience and contentment,” she added. 

Ali has been detained for more than eight years. In 2014, he and two others were sentenced to death over charges relating to their participation in anti-government protests. His mother has been praying for his release ever since.

The next day, God finally answered her prayers.

The Saudi Human Rights Commission on Thursday announced that the public prosecutor has referred the death sentences against the three for review after the king earlier this year issued a royal order halting the use of the death penalty against those convicted in crimes committed when they were minors.

“These referrals mark important progress in faithfully implementing an important reform in the legal system, and in advancing human rights in Saudi Arabia,” Awwad al-Awwad, the commission’s president, said in a statement. “They demonstrate the critical importance of these reforms not just in changes to the legal code, but in actions.”

The three men —Ali al-Nemer, Dawoud al-Marhoun and Abdullah al-Zaher— who will have their cases reviewed were previously sentenced under the anti-teorrism law. They will not be resentenced under a new law that allows for a maximum penalty of ten years in a juvenile detention facility. Minors who have already served ten or more years will have their cases reviewed for potential release, the commission said.

The spotlight on this particular case is partly explained by the fact that Ali is a nephew of Nemer al-Nemer, a firebrand cleric from the Shia minority who was executed in January 2016.

It is undoubtedly a huge relief for the families of these three men. Others were not as lucky. When the kingdom executed 33 Shia men in April 2019, the group included Mujtaba al-Suwaiket, another one whose family say he was under 18 when he was arrested.

Human rights groups have welcomed the latest Saudi decision and urged the kingdom to put a moratorium on executions.

“The announcement to review the death sentences against these three young men is a significant and long overdue step towards justice,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Research and Advocacy Director. “We call on the Saudi Arabian authorities to ensure that any retrial that follows is conducted in a fair, transparent and open manner with access to legal representation.”

Halting these executions could potentially mark a new chapter in the relationship between the state and its Shia citizens.

It has been nearly three years since the Shia-majority Qatif area saw violent clashes between security forces and armed men who fortified themselves in one of the town’s oldest neighbourhoods. That district, known as al-Musawwara, was later demolished, rebuilt and reopened to the public last year.

Critics accuse the government of using excessive force to bring the unrest to an end, but others, including some who have previously supported the protest movement, say they are exhausted by what was seen as a never-ending, vicious cycle of tension and sporadic violence.

However, this period of peace has brought its own questions about the Shia situation and identity in Saudi Arabia as the crown prince pushes a series of major economic and social transformations. Where do the Shia fit in the MBS project and what‘s in it for them? Can activists and community leaders adapt to the new realities on the ground?

While the sectarian tension in the country fluctuate over time, this has remained a constant for many years: many in the Shia community continue to complain about discrimination when it comes to religious freedoms and access to empoyment opportunities and public services. The government rejects these complaints, saying the kingdom’s rules and regulations do not discriminate between citizens based on sect.

But there is one complaint that you hear far less frequently these days: anti-Shia rhetoric found in local media and mosques is not as common now because the government has been aggressively promoting a “moderate Islam” agenda as it seeks to open up and attract foreign investment and tourists.

When a Snapchat influencer earlier this month posted a video asking God “not to leave any Shia on the face of earth, even if there are 99 million of them,” the public prosecution was quick to order arresting him. An official urged the population to “embody the spirit of moderation, citizenship, tolerance, fraternity and societal partnership…”

Some people argue that Shia will see benefits from the economic reforms to decrease dependence on oil revenues and grow the private sector as hiring by businesses is likely to be more meritocratic and less prone to manipulation and nepotism than the public sector. Government data shows that unemployment in the Eastern Province fell from 8.9% in the first quarter of last year to 6.1% to the same period in 2020, but it is probably too early to judge if that trend will continue as the economy goes into recession.

If the economy doesn’t rebound and unemployment hits higher numbers then that will become the most pressing issue and could renew old grievances, but for the time being the new social opening afforded by recent reforms is creating some space for a new intra-Shia debate about forces that have shaped the community over the last forty years.

Literary critic Mohammed al-Abbas has written an article in which he attempted to draw some parallels between the rise of Sunni sahwa (awakening) and what he called a “Shia sahwa” that has come to dominate Qatif after Iran’s Islamic revolution in 1979.

“Despite the procedural differences in the origins of the two awakenings and the differences in their formation factors, their rhythm on the ground was in harmony to some degree, and their mechanisms to suck life from society were almost identical,” he wrote.

Both awakenings have targeted women and limited their role in the public sphere, fought against artistic expressions and sought hegemony over public opinion, al-Abbas explained. They both expanded to control every aspect of daily life, ostracised those who didn’t join them and planted fear among those who rejected their ideas and slogans.

This argument by al-Abbas was widely welcomed by Sunni intellectuals who often accuse their Shia counterparts of lacking the courage to criticise their own community and clerics. It also conveniently fits with the new official narrative that describes current social reforms as simply restoring Saudi values to what they used to be before the rise of sahwa (while absolving the government from any responsibility for that).

Al-Abbas’s comparison between the Sunni sahwa and Shia sahwa has an obvious flaw: the latter lacked any official backing and in most cases opposed the state. In the case of the former, it was government support, implicit and explicit, that has allowed the movement to have such a firm grip on the social arena for many years. Its impact was vast and deep, not limited to one community or a specific part of the country.

It was inevitable that his article would spark some controversy, with Shia journalist Hasan al-Mustafa pointing out that some reactions have been flippant and oversensitive:

We all have to believe that “freedom of expression” and “the right to differ” are natural and even necessary. It is the hallmark of modern civil societies, and one of the signs of the liberation and maturity of individuals. And any vibrant society is one where ideas vary and contradict each other, contesting each other based on facts and science, without violence, incitement or intimidation.

That would be ideal, but we are not living in an ideal world. And it is hard to see how such a vital debate can be had openly and honestly when the margin for freedom of expression has rapidly declined in stark contrast to the economic and social opening taking place since 2016.

Some of the most notable voices missing from this debate include those of Bader al-Ibrahim, who co-authored a book on the Saudi Shia discourse, and prominent women’s rights activist Nassima al-Sadah. Both of them remain detained following waves of crackdowns against diverse groups of activists in 2018 and 2019.

Nevertheless, authorities will be pleased to see some in the Shia community speaking publicly about wrestling power away from conservatives and calling for the rise of a new generation of leaders from the technocratic class (doctors, engineers, bankers, etc.) who will be more willing to embrace the social liberalisation reforms pushed from the top.

Music concerts and other events backed by the government’s General Entertainment Authority in the Eastern Province have been well attended despite some muted resistance from Shia conservatives who —like their Sunni brethren— privately circulated anonymous WhatsApp messages about the importance of protecting “values” and social norms.

Saudi Shia and Sunni conservatives were finally unified.. in their fear of airing any criticism publicly.


That is all for this dispatch from Riyadh Bureau. Photo by Mishaal Zahed on Unsplash. Thanks for reading! You can send your feedback by email: alomran@hey.com.