The Saudi war on Yemen has understandably come to dominate the headlines since it began in late March 2015. The international scope of the conflict – nominally including the participation of nearly a dozen Gulf countries – coupled with the obvious political and geopolitical implications, all but assured that nearly all mention of Saudi Arabia in the news would be in the context of this war. However, there is another war being waged by Saudi Arabia, this one entirely within its own borders.
While Riyadh viciously, and illegally, bombs the people of Yemen, it also continues to wage a brutal war of repression against its own Shia population. A significant minority inside Saudi Arabia, the Shia community has been repeatedly victimized by the heavy-handed, often murderous, tactics of Saudi security forces in a desperate attempt by the House of Saud to maintain its iron grip on power. Rather than being challenged to democratize and respect the rights of a minority, the Saudi government has chosen violence, intimidation, and imprisonment to silence the growing chorus of opposition.
Were it only the Shia minority being targeted however, this overt repression might be crudely caricatured as sectarian conflict within the context of “Iranian influence” on Saudi domestic politics; Iran being the bogeyman trotted out by Riyadh to justify nearly all of its criminal and immoral actions, from financing terror groups waging war on Syria to the bombardment of the people of Yemen. However, the Saudi government is also targeting bloggers, journalists, and activists who, despite their small numbers in the oppressive kingdom, have become prominent defenders of human rights, symbolizing an attempt, fruitless though it may be, to democratize and bring some semblance of social justice to the entirely undemocratic monarchy.
At War Against Its Own People
It is a well understood fact, almost universally recognized, that Saudi Arabia is one of the principal instigators of sectarianism throughout the Muslim world. Using a “divide and conquer” strategy that has worked with insidious perfection in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere, Saudi Arabia has managed to flex its geopolitical muscles and project its power without much threat to its own internal stability. However, there is increasingly a Shia movement within Saudi Arabia – we should not call it “sectarian” as it is about equality under the law – demanding its rights and legal protections that are undeniably incompatible with the absolutist, monarchical system that Saudi Arabia has erected.