Terence Ward is a Colorado-born writer, documentarist, and cross-cultural consultant. He grew up in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Egypt, and received his BA in political science at the University of California at Berkeley. For 10 years, he advised clients across the Gulf — Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia conducting management consulting projects and seminars. Ward is also the author of the books “Searching for Hassan” and “The Wahhabi Code: How the Saudis Spread Extremism Globally.”
A couple of weeks have passed since the dramatic beheadings of 37 Saudi citizens that shocked the world. According to Human Rights Watch, at least 33 of those who were executed were from the minority Shia community — which has suffered a long history of persecution in Saudi Arabia.
With the Kingdom facing mounting criticism over bombing deaths and starvation in the Yemen war, imprisoned and reportedly tortured women activists, and the grisly murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, many wonder why Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud offered critics another human rights issue? But these executions served a clear purpose to strike fear in the Saudi Shia population while rallying the royal family’s ultra-conservative Wahhabi – the official creed of the Kingdom fundamentalist base. In the end, to be Shia in Saudi Arabia has always been a complicated affair.
Few Americans know that Wahhabism, a branch of Sunni Islam, looks down on Shia Muslims as apostates. Violence against Shia communities is deeply rooted in the Saudi Kingdom’s DNA. Like African Americans in the Deep South, the Shia have suffered discrimination and suspicion from the Wahhabi ruling elite since the founding of the country in 1932.
Those who were executed in April included protestors who were arrested and convicted of terror-related crimes during the Arab Spring demonstrations in 2011 and 2012. However, the human rights group Amnesty International said the legal proceedings “violated international fair trial standards which relied on confessions extracted through torture.”
According to trial documents obtained by CNN, some of the men repeatedly told the court that their confessions were false and obtained through torture.
When Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman rose to power in 2017, there was some hope that the Salman dynasty would usher in reforms. However, anti-Shia rhetoric persisted. For example, the hardline cleric Saleh al-Fawzan, a member of the state-sponsored Council of Senior Scholars, claimed in 2017, that the Shia are infidels and that anyone who disagrees is also an infidel.
And al-Fawzan has also said that political dissidents who disagree with the Kingdom rulers should be put to death.
The disappearance and murder of Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi government, after he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, fell in line with the intentions of al-Fawzan’s rhetoric.
The CIA later concluded that King Salman’s son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally ordered his killing.
The Saudi government has repeatedly denied the allegations, although the US Senate voted to condemn the young prince for Khashoggi’s grisly fate.
While Khashoggi’s death sparked international outrage, the Trump administration steered clear of assigning blame, and many businesses have quietly continued their plans for expansion there.
Amid inflammatory rhetoric against Iran a country dominated by Shia — coming from the White House, King Salman seemed encouraged to send a clear message of terror to his restive Shia citizens.
In doing so, the Saudi government seems to be ignoring the increased pressures it has recently faced on numerous fronts. Congress defied President Donald Trump in voting to suspend military aid for the kingdom’s war in Yemen. The state-owned oil company Aramco’s called off its initial public offering, while investors have reportedly pulled funding for MBS’ ambitious economic plan called Vision 2030.
To counter these setbacks, King Salman has drawn inspiration from the earliest days of the Saud dynasty to secure his most loyal followers the archconservative Wahhabi faithful. Historical persecution of the Shias has been the life-blood of the Wahhabi sect that was borne in central Arabia more than 250 years ago. For centuries, the Shia who lived along the Persian Gulf suffered violence from Wahhabi believers, who labeled them infidels.
During my childhood in Dhahran, when my father worked at Saudi Aramco from 1952-1960, I witnessed persecution of Shia who call the oil-rich eastern province, known as Al-Ahsa, their home. Our friends lived in oasis towns where Shia communities have dwelled for centuries. The sad fact is that the staggering oil wealth that poured into Riyadh was siphoned away from the Eastern Province.
Little was spent in the Shia communities, yet they have represented the majority of Saudi manpower in Aramco — now likely the world’s most profitable company.
Instead of benefiting from the profits of vast oil fields that lay under historically Shia lands, they have been treated as second-class citizens since Ibn Saud, who would eventually go on to found Saudi Arabia, and his family conquered their homeland in 1913. Even today, some Shia friends of mine call it “religious apartheid.”
When I returned as a management consultant to Saudi Arabia in the 1980’s, clerics had condemned mixing between Sunnis and Shia as well as intermarriage.
In numerous religious rulings, the late grand mufti, Abdulaziz Bin Baz, condemned the Shia community. Bin Baz’s religious rulings are still available in the kingdom’s official database and are often cited in Saudi court rulings, which are based on Islamic law.
More recently, a member of the Council of Senior Scholars said that Shia Muslims were “not our brothers … rather they are the brothers of Satan…”, according to Human Rights Watch.
Because of the historic conflict with the Shia community, the execution orders handed down by Saudi magistrates in April were expected.
But larger questions remain. Will MBS truly bring change and a more moderate Islam? Or do these April beheadings signal continued anti-Shia sentiment?
Is the Crown Prince trying to spark a conflict with Iran mother country of the Shia? And will this plunge America and the region into yet another unconstitutional war? Given the Saudi history of aiding and abetting extremists while claiming to be their enemy, should America be wary of being lured into another conflict? We should be very wary.
Recently, US National Security Adviser John Bolton announced that an aircraft carrier strike group with a bomber task force had been deployed to the Persian Gulf to deter Iran.
The royal Saud family may be gambling that America will come to its rescue and plunge the US into, yet again, another war, in what would be another trillion-dollar debacle. The truth is that America is extremely efficient at starting wars but dramatically incompetent at ending them.
Any aggression against Iran risks rupturing ties with Europe and in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, while provoking conflict with both Russia and China. If shooting erupts, the narrow Strait of Hormuz — the gateway in and out of the Persian Gulf — will surely be closed to oil tankers until the guns are silent. Lights of the industrial world will dim. It will be a time for lighting candles, unless cooler heads prevail. Perhaps this is a moment to stand up to the Saudi royals, (after the unpleasant experiences with al-Qaeda and ISIS — both Wahhabi inspired) and not be lured in yet again to another conflagration without end.