Yesterday, hundreds of thousands of people attended the funeral of 4 victims of a terrorist attack by the Islamic State (IS) which took place last week in the north eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia. This was the second mass funeral in two weeks. The events have brought to the fore the deep contradictions which exist in Saudi Arabia, but which for decades have been more or less hidden by the totalitarian nature of the reactionary regime.
Mourners gathered near the city of Dammam, the capital of Eastern Province, for the burial of four men who were killed in the terrorist attack last Friday. The men who were killed have been hailed as heroes as they tried to prevent the attacker from entering a mosque.
According to some reports, the procession which took hours to pass, drew in as many as 700,000 people. This was even larger than the funeral of last week which was attended by up to half a million people.
This was the second suicide attack on a Shia mosque in two weeks. The first attack killed 23 and wounded more than 100. The second attack proved much less lethal as improvised defence committees were set up by the Shia community, which took matters in their own hands to protect themselves. Therefore the victims of the latest bomb were local youth guarding the mosque.
After the first attack the Islamic State called for Saudi youth to rise up and “kill all Shias”. It also said that it has "ordered its soldiers everywhere to kill the enemies of religion, especially the Rafidha (Shiites).” In an audio recording a spokesperson of the group said: “They are disbelievers and apostates, and their blood is permissible to be shed, and their money is permissible to be taken. It is a duty upon us to kill them … and to purify the land from their faith".
It is clear that the intention of the attacks has been to stir up sectarian divisions in the country and cause a civil war. The mood on the funeral processions, however, does not indicate that the IS have achieved their aim. The placards on the marches read "Sectarian incitement is a time-bomb", “we are all against terrorism” and other slogans against sectarian hatred. Speaking to AFP Mohammed al-Arbash, who lost two cousins in the latest attack said: “Sunni people are our brothers. This man who exploded himself is not Sunni. He is ISIS, and ISIS has no religion”.
Rather than blaming the Islamic State, though, the protesters have been angry with the state. One participant said: “They didn't take any action after what happened in Dalwa - it's supposed to be the government who protect us.”
The mood of anger against the government was even more clearly expressed by another mourner:
“We demand an end to hatred and Takfirism (accusations of apostasy) against Shiites. The Takfirism did not begin with the person that committed the attack on Friday.”
“The real problem is the preachers who say the Shiites are not Muslims, the curriculum that teaches children from the first year of primary school that Shiites are not Muslims – these opinions are also being spread by media outlets.”
Division in the Kingdom
Publicly, the Saudi King has condemned the attacks and stated that he intends to “wipe out” the Islamic State in Saudi Arabia. Internal security has been drastically increased and checkpoints set up throughout the Eastern - mainly Shia - areas. The regime has also set a total price of $1.3 billion on the heads of 20 suspected IS members.
However, this is not convincing the Shia minority of the sincerity of the Saudi rulers. The Shia minority have long been severely oppressed and victimised by the monarchy and its allies, the Wahhabi clergy. The king initially claimed that three of the four victims of the latest blast were protecting the mosque on behalf of the state security forces. But it has since been revealed that the victims were volunteers from the local communities.
Another shocking fact was revealed by a video circulating around social media which shows a policeman standing at the scene of the first blast, saying the words “May god protect him” to the remains of the suicide bomber.
This is in line with the reactionary culture that the Kingdom has been nurturing. For decades the Shia minority of Saudi Arabia has been oppressed, demonised and consciously kept in deep poverty. This has principally been a concession by the ruling family to the Wahhabi clerical establishment who preach a reactionary strain of Sunni Islam which is itself the ideological basis for groups such as Islamic State and Al-Qaeda.
On a regular basis Wahhabi clerics, who occupy top positions in the Saudi state, appear on television screens to attack Shias, especially the Shias in the north east. It is the same people, backed by billions of dollars from the regime and US imperialism, who have built up the monstrous Islamist organisations which now threaten the future of the whole region. For their own narrow purposes US and Saudi imperialism have built up Islamists in Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as in Iraq and Syria. It is no secret that much, if not most, of the funding for IS has come from Saudi Arabia itself.
In fact, the new king has taken further steps to the right by promoting even more rabid preachers to key positions, while the anti-shia rhetoric has been stepped up during the war on Yemen.
All this is no secret to the poor Shia masses who blame the regime more than they blame IS for the recent attacks. In an act of bravery, the brother of one victim confronted the powerful and notoriously ruthless Minister of the Interior who was visiting the area of the second blast. The Middle East Eye reported:
“‘If you do not do your part…listen…then you are a silent partner in this crime,’ he told the prince at the hall, adding that newspapers that promote hatred of Shiite Muslims should be shut down.
“The Saudi royal responded by asserting his authority and telling Obaid that the government is responsible for running the country.
“‘I know you are emotional and I don’t blame you…but the government is doing its part and anyone else who tries to fulfil the role [that of government] will be held accountable,’ the prince said, while giving Obaid a small push in the chest.
“The prince continued, partially quoting a verse from the Qur'an that says that true believers who strive in the path of God do not fear the blame of the critic.
“‘The state will remain a state and the security services will clamp down on those who oppose it, whoever they are. Let’s be one hand with the state,’ he said.” (See parts of the encounter here)
These comments are highly significant in a country like Saudi Arabia where the smallest dissent is ruthlessly oppressed. The fact that so many people are speaking out against the sectarian line of the regime attests to the enormous pressures which have been piling up beneath the surface.
This mood initially came to the fore during the Arab Spring which saw a wave of protests in Saudi Arabia and in the Shia areas in particular. At least 20 people have been killed over the past few years while attending peaceful protests. In the same period a prominent and very critical leader of the movement, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr has been arrested and sentenced to death. Thus, while the movement as a whole has generally died down as it did not manage to connect with the broader working class, anger has still been simmering beneath the surface.
The latest mass funerals have clearly shown this process, not only in the enormous size of the movements, but in the equally unprecedented amount of criticism which has been publicly aired by normal people. The case of a normal Shia person publicly attacking a top Saudi royal in his presence is unheard of in the suffocating atmosphere of the Saudi dictatorship.
At the same time, an even more important development has been taking place on the ground amongst the Shias who have started the organisation of local defence committees in their areas.
The Middle East Eye reported:
“The unarmed committees - bands of young volunteers and activists - were first established in the aftermath of the bombing at the Imam Ali mosque in the village of Qudaih on 22 May, ostensibly to facilitate the arrival of hundreds of thousands of people who came to attend the funerals of the 24 people killed.
“Local community leaders gathered hundreds of volunteers who set up car parks outside Qudaih, and buses were arranged to transport mourners to the funeral procession. Committee members frisked people individually and searched arriving vehicles.
“Since the mass funeral on 25 May, the committees have extended into the city of Qatif and 20 surrounding villages. More than 150 people are taking part in each committee, in each village, locals told Middle East Eye.
“Checkpoints have been established where four to five volunteers man each monitor vehicles and people entering each village. They have no weapons or electronic devices to detect bombs, but instead the idea is to question people entering who are not from the Eastern Province.
“‘They look at the faces of people coming in – to see if they are from here or not,” said one local, who asked to remain anonymous. ‘They also look inside cars to make sure there is nothing suspicious inside.’”
For the Shias, the government-installed checkpoints are not seen as a protective measure for them, but rather a measure aimed at protecting the regime against them. One inhabitant of Qudaih said about the police: “They have done nothing to protect the people here. We will protect ourselves, by ourselves. The police can come to support us but they will not be the ones to protect the community.”
However the collapse of state security forces in these areas and the setting up of a people's militia is also a threat to the regime. At the moment the regime has no option but to accept their establishment, but that is only a sign of the weakness of the regime. In th end his will add only serve to raise tensions to new levels.
A rotten regime
The Shia backlash is a reaction to decades of reactionary sectarian policies carried out by the rotten Saudi ruling clique. However, up until now the Saudis have been able to stabilise their internal situation by sending the Islamists abroad to fight dirty reactionary wars on behalf of imperialism. Today, though, the chicken has come home to roost. The Islamists are not only a threat to the Shias, but also to the kingdom itself, which they want to replace with a caliphate.
The old king Abdullah, while reactionary to the core, understood this and was extremely conservative in his actions, knowing that any drastic move could cause the whole kingdom to crumble. But with his death a new and even more rotten gang has assumed power. The new king, Salman, and his 35 year-old son, Mohammed bin Salman, who is now one of the most powerful people in the country, have managed to destabilise the whole country in less than six months.
They started the war in Yemen partially to appease the Wahhabi establishment and keep their criticism at bay. But the effect has been the opposite. Not only have they whipped up a mass of sectarian propaganda at home, furthering the base for Islamist recruitment, but they have managed to strengthen Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula as well. This process will be further deepened as they are forced to admit a defeat in this unwinnable war. The extreme shortsightedness of the ruling gang was clearly exposed here. Not only did they enter a war with no clearly stated aims or any chance of victory, but they assumed that this would not have an impact on the country itself.
At the same time, while they (at least the top of the regime) have stopped backing IS directly, they are stepping up their support for other Islamist groups such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria. Only two days ago they announced an agreement with Turkey to unite their proxy war efforts in Syria in order to fight against the Assad regime. This, they declared, has already led to the taking of the important Syrian town of Idlib - which was won largely by a coalition of reactionary Islamist groups. This is already backfiring on the kingdom which claims to be the custodian of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, by undermining its internal stability. In the end this could lead to the breakup of the country.
Foreign policy and domestic policy are intrinsically connected. The crisis of Saudi imperialism affects its domestic politics and vice versa. As the defeats of Saudi imperialism in Yemen becomes clearer, the mood of nationalism and sectarianism will recede and push more people into opposition against the monarchy. Some of these will undoubtedly move towards reactionary Islamist groups. However, an even larger layer will be open to joining a class-based movement.
The massive events in the Shia areas are a reflection of years of exploitation and oppression, but this is not confined to the Shia areas alone. In spite of enormous riches, between two and four million Saudis live in dire conditions below the poverty line. in 2011 three video bloggers were arrested after making a documentary about poverty in the country. At the same time, the crushing weight of the dictatorship has alienated a large part of the youth. Women are particularly oppressed and have been increasingly vocal in protesting. Besides the Saudis, millions of immigrant workers also work in the country under slave-like conditions.
It is these layers which are the natural allies of the movement in the Shia areas. Only by organising a national movement on a class-based programme can the reactionary monarchy be overthrown and Islamist sectarian reaction uprooted forever.