Saudi Shias’ conditions under Bin Salman’s reforms

Alwaght – Saudi Arabia’s development plan, known as Saudi Vision 2030, which was introduced by the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2016 has been subject of the Saudi media news and analyses ever since. The program, which is praised as bringing to the Arab kingdom the economic and social development equally, is expected to develop the oil-dependent Saudi economy to a degree of growth that will see reduced reliance on oil incomes, increased tax collections, and self-efficiency in industry and food production.

Socially, the regime is showing some flexibility. Prince Mohammed lifted the ban on the women driving and opened cinemas for the citizens as part of a reform program accompanied by large-scale media propaganda which praises the moves as breaking with the religious stringency of Wahhabism, a fundamentalist version of Islam dominant in Saudi Arabia.

However, the regime arrested about a dozen female activists who had campaigned for the right to drive, and their detention was notable because it occurred as the crown prince was loosening restrictions on female drivers.

The arrests of the female activists appeared to be intended to reinforce the notion that any overhauls must come as gifts from the monarch, rather than as a response to grass-roots activists or independent advocates.

Meanwhile, the Shia minority, which has been the main victim of the dominance of the Wahhabi thought over the whole aspects of the kingdom’s politics, is impatiently watching the situation for a tangible change in its living conditions.

Wahhabism pressures Shias

Since launching his so-called reform program, bin Salman claimed that he closed or restricted activities of the schools run by the Wahhabi fundamentalists that for years have been operating freely and propagating their extremist ideology in various cities across the country to students and ordinary people.

But the realities on the ground prove that crackdown and restrictions by the young prince on the Wahhabi circles do not mean impairment of these deep-rooted, powerful bodies across the country. Reports suggest that the crown prince secretly ordered a halt to all of the Wahhabi activities in the country except for the predominantly Shia regions like Qatif, Al-Hasa, and Najran as part of a plan to culturally integrate them into the aimed ideology. This means that the ostensible reform campaign of the prince to restrict the fundamentalist circles is limited to areas where the Wahhabism has deep roots and does not require further work for deeper influence.

Bin Salman leaves the Wahhabis hands open for propagation of their ideology in the Shia-majority regions as part of a broader strategy to both crack down on the Shias and take control of the powerful religious apparatus. The measures largely conflict with King-in-waiting’s claims that he is taking long steps to install a moderate version of Islam in the oil-wealthy kingdom and prove that his measures are part of a propagandistic show and the Wahhabism intends to remain as a powerful role player in the Arab monarchy as before.

Shias in hard living conditions despite alleged economic reforms

Although the economic reforms have founded further companies and brought in new foreign firms and investors to the kingdom, many studies find that the measures have not been of avail to the Shias of the country who are paid lower than the Sunni Saudis under a long-standing religion-based discriminatory system. The Shias are majorly fired from state jobs and face difficulty seeing a clear job opportunity outlook ahead. These conditions cause the Shia citizens not to be optimistic about economic improvement under the Vision 2030.

The crown prince, who pledged to liberalize the economy as well as social codes, oversaw the detention in November of hundreds of wealthy businessmen on undisclosed corruption charges, seeking to force them to surrender assets in exchange for their freedom.

He had said he hoped to attract investment to help diversify the Saudi economy, which is almost entirely dependent on oil. Instead, the secretive and arbitrary character of the detentions prompted many Saudi and international investors to move large amounts of money out of the kingdom.

Shias’ tragic rights situation

The minority community’s rights are widely violated across the West-backed kingdom . The verdict to execute 14 Shia activists shows that the human rights gloom did not change even in a much-taunted period of social reforms. The rights groups disparage the trial procedures, arguing that the confessions were extracted by force. They continue that some of the convicts were deprived of lawyers and some others were below the legal age at the time of charging.

While bin Salman has tried to presented himself abroad as a reformer who is working to loosen some of the kingdom’s strict moral codes, executing rights activists and cracking downs on them exhibit the fact that the regime does not much think about a real transformation of its approach to the civil rights. Most executions in Saudi Arabia are by beheading, a method used to kill 48 people over a four-month period this year.

Following the death of King Abdullah and assumption of power by Salman bin Abdulaziz in early 2015, the violence against Shias in the Eastern Province, the bastion of the Shia minority, considerably increased. The Shia Cleric Ayatollah Nimr Baqir al-Nimr was executed in 2016 in a mass execution of 47 people and Al-Awamiyah, the hometown of the cleric, was raided by the regime forces who killed many Shia activists.

Saudi regime has recently detained six Shia activists for charges including participating in protests, chanting slogans hostile to the regime, attempting to inflame public opinion, filming protests and publishing on social media, and providing moral support to rioters. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for five of the six, including 29-year-old female activist Israa al-Ghomgham.

Ms. Ghomgham, whom Human Rights Watch described as a well-known advocate of equal rights for Shias, faces accusations related to that activism, not for work with women’s rights.

She and her husband were arrested in a night raid on their home on Dec. 6, 2015, and she has been in jail since. She now faces trial in the kingdom’s Specialized Criminal Court, which was set up in 2008 to try terrorism cases. The court has drawn criticism from rights advocates, who say it severely limits the rights of defendants.

The analysts maintain that scanty reforms, mainly in the women freedoms, do not present a broad sense of social freedoms that is marked by allowing the rise of social rights groups and relief of the long-standing restrictions on the Shia citizens. Indeed, the limited reforms are only aimed to embellish the Saudi regime’s image globally and do not genuinely serve the Shia minority of the country.