Saudi Arabia’s Shia Stand Up

BEIRUT – On February 24, violent confrontations between Shia pilgrims and the Saudi religious police and security forces occurred at the entrance to the Prophet Mohamed’s Mosque in Medina. The timing and location of the clashes may have serious repercussions for domestic security, if not for the regime itself.

Some 2,000 Shia pilgrims gathered near the mosque that houses the Prophet’s tomb for the commemoration of Mohamed’s death, an act of worship that the ruling Saudi Wahhabi sect considers heretical and idolatrous. Thus, the Mutawa’ah, the religious police of the Committee for the Preservation of Virtue and the Prohibition of Vice, armed with sticks and backed by police firing into the air, tried to disperse the pilgrims. The pilgrims resisted. Three pilgrims died and hundreds were injured in the ensuing stampede. A large number of pilgrims remain in detention, among them 15 teenage boys.

Soon after, representatives of Saudi Arabia’s Shia community sought a meeting with King Abdullah in an effort to free the detainees. Dialogue seemed like a promising strategy: just ten days earlier, Abdullah had announced a promising reform agenda for the country. But the King refused to meet the Shia delegation.

The violence outside the Medina mosque has led to unprecedented demonstrations in front of Saudi embassies in London, Berlin, and The Hague, with protesters demanding independence from the Saudi state.