The Transformation of Shia Politics in the Gulf Monarchies

Laurence Louër, Sciences Po CERI, Paris, France

*This piece was drafted as part of the New Analysis of Shia Politics workshop. See POMEPS Studies 28 for the full collection.

Shias in the Gulf monarchies display sometimes very different types of relations with the ruling elites and the state. The discrimination that Shias suffer in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are the exception rather than the rule. In order to explain these variations, I look at the context of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwait. These cases are particularly helpful for determining the type of variables that influence Shias’ relations with the state, because we can observe how the same transnational Shia political movements produce very different types of Shia politics. This shows that the local contexts are more important than the ideologies in shaping Shia politics. These local contexts are themselves shaped by two types of variables: the deep-seated structural variable of the long term state formation process and the circumstantial variables of the Iranian foreign policy (both objective and perceived) and of the local coalition politics.

The state formation process as a structural variable

In the Gulf, two models of relations between the state and Shias can be distinguished. They result from two different patterns of incorporation of Shias in the long-term state formation process.

One the one hand, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are examples of particularly strained relations between Shias and the rulers. Though varying in intensity and in rationale according to the domestic and regional political circumstances, state-sponsored discrimination against Shias is widespread.

These states do not have in common a religious ideology that could explain this situation. Bahraini rulers are liberal when it comes to religion, for example, Shias benefit from full religious freedom. The ninth and the tenth days of the month of Muharram, during which Shias commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, have even been official days off since independence in 1971. In Saudi Arabia, by contrast, the strained relations between Shias and the state could be explained by the sole fact that the Wahhabi brand of Sunni Islam plays a foremost role in the regime’s legitimation. Wahhabis, indeed, believe that Shias practice a deviant form of Islam and, in the most extreme cases, even consider them non-Muslims.

The common point between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia is that both states were created as the result of military conquests in which Shias fell on the side of the vanquished. This forced type of incorporation has resulted in a highly polarized social stratification in which the Sunni/Shia divide is overlapping with the conqueror/conquered and the alien/native divides. In both states, Shias have developed a nativist narrative, portraying themselves as the “original inhabitants” in contrast to the ruling Al Khalifa and Al Saud dynasties who are seen as alien invaders.

By contrast, the Kuwaiti case has been described as a “success story”[1] by some observers looking at how Shias were incorporated into the nation-state. There, Shias have historically enjoyed a particularly good relationship with the Al Sabah ruling family. They are organized as diasporic communities maintaining extensive cross-border family ties with their families’ place of origin. The largest group, the Ajam, came from Iran at different historical periods in the framework of a traditional pattern of border migration, to trade or to escape economic hardship. The Hasawiyyin ethnic group came from Hasa, now in the Eastern part of the Saudi kingdom, to escape Wahhabi persecution. The Baharna settled in Kuwait to escape political instability and economic hardship in Bahrain.

All these Kuwaiti Shia groups have espoused the dominant narrative about Kuwaiti state formation, which describes the emirate as the result of the progressive gathering of tribes and families from different parts of the Middle East for the sake of a shared economic project. Kuwait is seen as a haven to develop commercial activities or to escape hardship at home. Kuwaiti Shias tend to see the state as a shelter. This is because of not only the circumstances of their establishment in the emirate but also the nature of Kuwaiti politics, marked by recurring conflicts between the ruling dynasty and groups in the society suspicious about Shias such as the Sunni merchant oligarchy and, today, Sunni Islamists allied and/or emanating from the tribal segments of the society. In this context, Shias have regularly sided with the rulers. Today, during a particularly tense moment between the government and the opposition, Shias remain one of the government’s most reliable constituencies.

Iranian policy: Exacerbating or moderating rulers’ reaction to Shia political movements

The way state-formation developed and how Shias were incorporated delineates deep-seated patterns of behavior. However, its influence may be moderated or accentuated according to more short-term and circumstantial variables, namely the foreign policy of Iran and how it is perceived by the Gulf regimes, as well as domestic coalition politics.

What Iran actually does or is perceived to be doing by Gulf incumbents has always influenced the way rulers perceive their Shia populations, especially since the 1979 Islamic revolution. The stated aim of the Islamic Republic to “export the revolution” and its denunciation of the Gulf rulers – first among them the Al Saud – as lackeys of Western imperialism added to the pressure in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and jeopardized established arrangements between the rulers and Shias in Kuwait.

In all the three countries, the Iranian revolution saw the radicalization of existing Shia Islamic movements. These movements, which had taken root in the 1960s and 1970s, resulted from the influence of Iraqi Shia Islamic movements tied to the higher Shia religious authority in Najaf (the al-Da‘wa movement) and in Karbala (the Message Movement connected to the al-Shirazi clerical family). Although these movements were rivals, they had similar ideologies promoting, whenever possible, revolutionary action to establish Shia versions of the Islamic state theorized by Sunni Islamist ideologues and, when this strategy seemed irrelevant, societal re-Islamization.

Significantly however, while the pattern of alliance between the Shia MPs and the rulers was (temporarily) broken in Kuwait, only in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia did this radicalization turn into a revolutionary project to overthrow the regimes through mass-demonstrations, terrorist violence, and coup d’état. In Kuwait, even the pro-Iranian activists always remained committed to the maintenance of Kuwait as an emirate ruled by the Al Sabah dynasty. This shows how the impact of the Iranian revolution was mediated by domestic circumstances: it resonated differently according to established patterns of interaction between Shias and the state.

The impact of the actual and perceived foreign policy of Iran is not necessarily negative. In the 1990s, the situation of the Shias improved in Saudi Arabia after a pragmatic shift in Iranian foreign policy following the death of Khomeini, the sidelining of Iran’s most radical factions, and Iranian cooperation in the war to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. After these developments, the Shia Islamic opposition, which was dominated by the Shirazist current, was compelled to renounce its revolutionary project to espouse a reformist agenda and was able to strike a deal with the Saudi regime, allowing most of its members to come back from exile.

Another, more recent, example of this type of positive impact is the 2003-2011 period. The fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq and the arrival to power of Shia Islamic movements in Baghdad fostered the expansion of the Iranian networks of influence in Iraq and created the perception among Arab rulers that the new regional order – resulting largely from American policy – was empowering Iran at their expense. Interestingly, the reaction of Gulf rulers was to engage in typical politics of recognition, granting Shias a measure of recognition as a legitimate religious collective different than Sunnis. This was an attempt to secure the loyalty of Shia citizens and dissuade them from engaging in subversive activities with the support of Iran: increased national integration was seen as a buffer against subversive Iranian influence. In this respect, the most spectacular shift occurred again in Saudi Arabia, where the regime relaxed the systematic obstacle to constructing new Shia mosques and accepted an upgrading of the Shia personal status court system.

Domestic coalition politics: Restricting or opening political opportunities for Shia movements

During the 2003-2011 period, enhanced intra-dynastic factionalism in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain explains the benevolence of some sections of the regimes towards Shias in their states. In Saudi Arabia, Abdallah bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud, who was Crown Prince and regent while King Fahd was incapacitated by a stroke in 1995 and became king in 2005, was facing competition by the Sudayri faction of the ruling dynasty, at the time embodied by the powerful Minister of the Interior Nayef bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud. The main issue of the competition was control of the succession, with the Sudayri struggling to impose one of their members as Crown Prince. This prompted Abdallah to seek supporters outside the family, becoming the main backer of a policy of Shia recognition. In reaction, the Minister of the Interior positioned himself as the upholder of conservatism and Wahhabi dogmatism.

A similar situation occurred in Bahrain, where the 2000s saw a mounting rivalry within the Al Khalifa dynasty between an old guard gathered around the Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa and a young reformist faction gathered around King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and his son, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa. The mainstream Shia Islamic opposition – al-Wifaq – decided to support the reformist faction hoping that together they could sideline the old guard, which was seen as a major obstacle to more political liberalization. In the process, al-Wifaq became a co-opted opposition.

In Kuwait, the 2000s marked a return of the old pattern of coalition between the ruling family and the Shia MPs. On the one hand, the persistent strain between the government and the parliament, dominated by a Sunni Islamist-tribal opposition, enabled this shift. On the other hand, the period saw the intensification of intra-dynastic competition, in particular between two nephews of the emir, Nasir al-Mohammed Al Sabah (who was Prime minister between 2006 and 2011) and Ahmed al-Fahd Al Sabah. Each co-opted different MPs, trying to garner support and also to embarrass one another. In this context, Shias became the loyal supporters of Nasir al-Mohammed, a career diplomat who had been ambassador to Iran before 1979 and had retained connections and business networks there.

In 2008, the alliance between Kuwaiti Shias and the Al Sabah rulers was solidified by one defining event. The MPs of the main Shia Islamic movement, which was openly pro-Iranian, decided to organize a mourning ceremony for Imad Mughniyya, a leading member of Lebanese Hezbollah who had just been assassinated in Damascus. Because Mughniyya had always been suspected to be one of the masterminds of a series of terrorist attacks in Kuwait in the 1980s, the move sparked considerable criticism, including among many Shias. The MPs responsible for the mourning ceremony were expelled from the opposition parliamentary bloc, and some of them were even briefly arrested. This was a golden opportunity for the rulers to broker a new deal. At the end, they showed full support to the Shia MPs against all the accusations, articulated primarily by the Sunni Islamist opposition, that they were traitors and Iranian agents. In exchange, the Shia MPs were asked to end their oppositionist stance.

The impact of the Arab uprisings

On the eve of the 2011 Arab uprisings, there had been an improvement of the relations between Shias and the state in all the Gulf countries, driven by the favorable combination of regional geopolitics and domestic politics. Coupled with the regional context marked by the civil wars in Syria and Yemen, the uprising in Bahrain and the series of riots in the area of Qatif in Saudi Arabia fostered a veritable paradigm shift in the approach of the Shia issue by the Bahraini and Saudi regimes. It has been described by Justin Gengler as a “securitization of the Shia problem.”[2]

This paradigm shift occurred as the Bahraini internal dynastic balance of power of the 2000s was disrupted. The reformist faction’s alliance with the Shia opposition did not survive the mass demonstrations, in part because of the loss of trust that had been built. The old guard argued that the reformists’ strategy of co-opting the Shia opposition had been misleading, since the latter had seized the first opportunity to take to the streets to impose what they had not been able to negotiate peacefully. A similar pattern occurred in Saudi Arabia, where the trust was also weakened, leaving only repression as the credible option, in the eyes of the incumbents, to deal with the Shia issue. Clearly, 2011 was analyzed in both countries as a failure of the co-optation strategy developed in the 1990s and accelerated in the 2000s.

It must be noted that this paradigm shift occurred as the incumbents’ perceptions of the threat were modified, not as a result of a fundamental transformation of the landscape of Shia activism itself. Before 2011, Shia activism was organized around a division between a majority reformist trend willing to build alliances with segments of the regimes as far as possible in order to obtain a limited opening of the political space, and a more radical trend convinced that it was impossible to obtain anything substantial with such a strategy. The latter regularly engaged in riots with the police forces, especially in Bahrain. In this country, the reformist Shia opposition – namely al-Wifaq – joined the uprising reluctantly and strived to maintain a reformist approach, calling for a constitutional monarchy, while the radical movements were advocating the establishment of a republican regime. In Saudi Arabia, the reformist trend did not join the riots in Qatif, which never gained the magnitude of the street movement in Bahrain.

Significantly, the Kuwaiti pattern was left untouched by the 2011 events, not the least because the Sunni Islamist/tribal opposition was the main actor of the 2011 events that pushed the pro-Shia Prime Minister Nasir al-Mohammed to resign. The deep-seated pattern of incorporation resulting from the state formation process and the peculiarity of opposition politics allowed for the continuation of a high level of trust between the incumbents and their Shia allies. This did not go without posing some problems for relations between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. The Kuwaitis refused to send troops to participate in the quelling of the demonstrations in Bahrain and showed no enthusiasm at the Saudi proposition to accelerate the unification of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which the Kuwaiti government saw as an undesirable consolidation of Saudi leadership.


This brief analysis of the transformations of Shia politics in the Gulf monarchies shows how circumstantial variables can impact the more entrenched state-formation variable in different ways, deepening the pattern of flawed incorporation or tempering its effects. In the current circumstances, the main question mark is whether the particularly tense Bahraini and Saudi situations can shift to more integrative dynamics. To date, the securitization of the Shia problem is leading to a fragmentation of Shia political leadership: incumbents no longer want to elevate some Shia Islamist movements as monopolistic representatives of Shias as a community. This fragmentation could lead to further radicalization of some fringes of the Shias in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Can they find support of transnational militant networks? In Iran, some radical groups remain committed to the revolutionary ideology who are ready to reactivate the 1980s revolutionary software. Iranian incumbents could also be willing to manipulate Shia movements as bargaining chips in future negotiations with Saudi Arabia. Radical minded Saudi and Bahraini activists could also link themselves to Iraqi Shia militias, for example by joining the fight against ISIS and other Sunni radical groups in Syria and Iraq, then export violence back home. Whatever happens, radicalization trends can be contained only by some form of coalition and cooptation of the still reformist mainstreams.

[1] Graham Fuller and Rend Rahim Francke, The Arab Shi’a. The Forgotten Muslims, New York: Palgrave, 2001.

[2] Justin Gengler, “Royal Factionalism, the Khawalid, and the Securitization of ‘the Shīʿa Problem’ in Bahrain”, Journal of Arabian Studies. Arabia, the Gulf, and the Red Sea, 3 (1), 2013.