RIYADH (AFP) – Expressions of solidarity by Saudi Arabia’s Sunni leaders towards Shiites are helping to bridge a divide after an unprecedented militant attack against the minority community, analysts say.
Condemnation of the deadly shooting in the Eastern Province town of Al-Dalwa has sent a positive signal to Shiites who have long complained of marginalisation in the Sunni-dominated kingdom, analysts say.
The conciliatory gestures “could be the beginning” of a longer-term process of creating a more inclusive nation, said Stephane Lacroix, a specialist on Saudi Arabia at the Sciences Po university in Paris.
But more needs to be done or the Sunni-Shiite violence that has killed thousands in Iraq, and affected neighbouring Yemen and Bahrain, “will also hit Saudi Arabia,” he warned.
Seven Shiites, including children, were gunned down in the attack last week during the commemoration of Ashura, one of the Shiite faith’s holiest occasions.
Assailants also killed a man and stole his car to use in the shootings, a resident and local media reported.
Two members of the security forces died in battle with alleged suspects, and more than 30 others have been detained in a dragnet after the crimes, local media said.
The kingdom’s Grand Mufti, Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, has declared the attack to be “against the teachings of Islam”.
A Western diplomat said the Sunni authorities had sent an important message that Shiites “are a part of the nation and we are with you against terrorism.”
He described it as “a turning point,” noting that Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef had visited families of the victims, the wounded, and a Shia religious centre.
“The objective of the terrorists was to divide and trigger a kind of sectarian strife and conflict between Sunnis and Shiites but the result is exactly the opposite,” the diplomat said, requesting anonymity.
Although Sunni extremists attacked Westerners and government targets in the kingdom between 2003 and 2006, a major militant attack against Shiites had never previously occurred.
The killings followed this year’s declaration of a “caliphate” in parts of Iraq and Syria by jihadists with the Islamic State (IS) group who consider Shiites heretics, and have targeted them for death.
Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Gulf neighbours have joined a US-led military coalition bombing the IS group in Syria, raising concerns about possible retaliation in the kingdom.
The Al-Dalwa attack “shows that Sunni extremists have shifted their target set beyond the regime toward Shiites – perhaps in a bid to provoke civil strife,” said Frederic Wehrey, a Gulf expert at the US-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Since 2011, protests and sporadic attacks on security forces have occurred in Shiite areas, leaving around 20 Shiite youth dead.
But there has been no major Shiite backlash to the Al-Dalwa killings.
“Maybe this will be a chance for the Saudi state to reach out to the Shia and to try to change something,” said Toby Matthiesen, a research fellow at the University of Cambridge.
He said the shooting “sends a message to the Shia that the state, the Saudi state, is their only real protector against attacks by Sunni militants.”
The shooting could paradoxically help to bridge the gap between Shiites and the authorities, Matthiesen said, but the government would have to take more fundamental steps to address the minority’s disquiet.
He said these could include pardoning Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, who was sentenced to death last month.
Nimr was a driving force behind demonstrations in the oil-rich east in 2011 and 2012.
Tensions have continued to simmer in parts of the region, where an estimated two million or more Shiites live.
A resident of Al-Dalwa said Shiites appreciated Prince Nayef’s visit and the government’s response to the murders.
But he said the community needs more, including a clampdown on sectarian speech in the media and reform of a school curriculum which portrays Shiites negatively.
Although the display of national unity by the elite may have been a start, two things have to change if grassroots tensions with Shiites are to ease, said Lacroix.
The first is the religious establishment’s view of Wahhabi Islam as “the only proper form” of Islam.
Secondly, Shiites are considered “outsiders” and apart from the tribal culture of the kingdom’s central region, which sees itself as dominant.
“This will take probably at least a generation to change,” he said.