Saudi Arabia: cultivating sectarian spaces

(Part of a European Council on Foreign Relations report, ‘The Gulf and Sectarianism’, published November 2013)

Sectarianism has long underpinned Saudi Arabia’s domestic and foreign policy, and it has proved to be a particularly effective tool in the government’s management of the Arab Awakening, the movement of protest and revolt that began in Tunisia in December 2010. Saudi Arabia deployed a sectarian narrative to describe the 2011 uprising in Bahrain, calling it an Iranian-backed movement of Shia empowerment that aimed to disenfranchise Sunnis, the “rightful” Islamic centre of which Riyadh sees itself as champion. Saudi Arabia readily applied this framework to the conflict in Syria as it developed later that same year: the government characterised it as a battle in which a majority Sunni population has had to defend itself from an alignment of deviant Islamic schools and ideologies that aim to subjugate Sunnis – an easy sell considering that Shia powers and actors, specifically Iran, Hezbollah, and Syria’s own Alawi community, have been the most prominent supporters of President Bashar al-Assad.

The promotion of Salafism has also been an effective strategy to counter other forms of Sunni political Islam. It was especially critical as Islamist groups linked to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Tunisia and Egypt, which in turn emboldened the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip. Saudi Arabia uses a formidable variety of means to promote Salafism, including political, military, and financial means, as well as the media. The discourse disseminated through these means filters down throughout society and across political lines to influence, to varying degrees, the thinking of liberals, Arab nationalists, leftists, and others, as well as the public arena in the Gulf and beyond.

Recent months have witnessed key developments: after Hezbollah publically declared in April and May that its members were fighting in Syria with Assad’s forces, anti-Shia sectarianism spiked, but with the military coup against President Mohammed Morsi and Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt, the rhetoric receded as the Saudi regime shifted its focus to an assault on the ideas of Sunni political Islam, which, in the Saudi-Wahhabi telling, is a parvenu deviation from the classic Sunni sharia state as replicated in Saudi Arabia.

The evolution of sectarianism in Saudi Arabia

Political power in the modern Saudi state is based on two pillars: the right of the Saudi family (Al Saud) to rule and the orthodoxy of Wahhabi Islam. Sectarianism of an ideological nature is an entrenched element of Wahhabi thought, which deems the practices and ideas of a range of Islamic legal schools and communities as deviations from devotion to the oneness of God. Particular animus has been reserved historically for Muslims within the immediate range of the Saudi-Wahhabi heartland in the Najd, especially Shias who remain the most numerous “other” who are resistant to orthodoxy. Wahhabi zealots sacked the Shia holy city of Karbala in Iraq in 1802, for example, and later, during the conquest of the Hejaz in 1924-1925, even murdered hundreds of Sunnis deemed heretics in the Ta’if area. Notably, while the founder of the modern Saudi state, Abdulaziz, restrained the Wahhabi establishment from warring on the Shias who dominated in the Qatif and al-Hasa oases – in what became the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia when they fell to Saudi control in 1913 – the Twelver Shia in the Eastern Province and Ismaili Shia in Najran in the south have long been easy targets for the clerics of Wahhabism.

Additionally, the emergence of Iran as a political power based on a novel, expansionist, and emancipatory theory of Shia governance from 1979 onwards created impetus for a form of political sectarianism, as King Abdulaziz began to view Shias in the Gulf as a possible fifth column for Saudi Arabia’s rival Iran. But in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Saudi Arabia started to moderate both elements of this sectarianism: the government began a rapprochement with Iran, and a reformist camp within the ruling clique, led by then Crown Prince Abdullah, sought to reduce Wahhabi extremism in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks against the United States.

The invasion of Iraq in 2003, however, changed everything: it allowed Shia Islamists in Iraq to come to power via the ballot box and align the country with Iran, causing a seismic shift in regional geopolitics.(1) Invigorated by such an unexpected gift, Iran engaged in a new wave of expansionism as a political and military backer of the Syrian government, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas in Gaza. This has led to a decade of conflict in the region between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which has often been referred to, appropriately, as a new Cold War in which each side – one intimately allied with Western powers, the other vigorously challenging them – identifies, creates, and activates proxies like chess pieces around the region. Since 2003, the Wahhabi view of Shi’ism as being outside Islam has found resonance beyond the borders of Saudi Arabia. Accompanying this development has been a shift in the language often used to refer to Shias: long labelled ‘ajam (non-Arab, Persian) to indicate their “outsider” status, they are now being described as raafida, or rejectionists.(2)

Hezbollah declares the fight in Syria

Over three speeches in 2013, on 30 April, 9 May, and 25 May, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah justified the movement’s support of Assad in Syria and explained why Hezbollah members were fighting against the Syrian opposition in al- Qusayr, a fight that the Saudi-backed rebels eventually lost. Avoiding direct mention of Saudi Arabia, Nasrallah said that he was fighting the spread of Salafi jihadists – terming them takfiris, or Muslims who denounce other Muslims as apostates – who are tools in the hands of Western powers plotting to destroy “the resistance”, an array of anti-Israeli forces against the hegemony of the West and its regional allies.(3)

Nasrallah’s comments unleashed a wave of sectarian mobilisation in the Gulf, especially from both Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as reflected in their leading pan-Arab media outlets, Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera, local Islamist TV stations, more so in Saudi Arabia, internet forums, newspapers, seminars and conferences, as well as in their political actions.(4) Salafi groups, either based in Lebanon or Syria, were seen as the likely culprits behind two bomb attacks (claimed by a group calling itself the Aisha Brigade, a name that signals opposition to Shi’ism) in south Beirut in July and August 2013 with the apparent aim of killing Shias for the sake of being Shia (rather than focusing on specific Hezbollah targets), constituting an Iraq-style escalation in Lebanon’s post-civil war history of political violence. The second bomb killed at least 18 people and appeared to be the provocation behind two car bombs in the Sunni city of Tripoli a week later that killed 42 people.(5)

The sectarian response manifested inside and outside of Saudi Arabia at the level of public debate. Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, a Brotherhood-linked cleric who has been based in Qatar for many years and appears regularly on Al Jazeera, began to call on Sunni Muslims around the world to head to Syria for jihad against Assad’s regime. “Iran is pushing forward arms and men, so why do we stand idle? Now we know what the Iranians want […]. They want continued massacres to kill Sunnis”, he said after Friday prayers in Doha.(6)

In a second intervention, al-Qaradawi issued a mea culpa over Hezbollah, telling Saudi Arabia’s Al Arabiya that Wahhabism had been right and he had been wrong in defending Hezbollah in 2006 when Saudi clerics vilified the movement’s war with Israel as the posturing of Shia infidels with an anti-Sunni Iranian agenda. “It turned out I was deceived and the kingdom’s scholars were more mature than I was when it comes to the reality of this party”, he said in June 2013.(7) The decision to give an interview to Al Arabiya was notable in itself – al-Qaradawi is given a regular pulpit to address Arabs across the region on Qatar’s Al Jazeera satellite news channel – and was indicative of Saudi and Qatari alignment in the manipulation of sectarian themes.

In the same month, he used an appearance on Al Jazeera to launch a strikingly direct attack on Assad’s religious community, the Alawis, employing the kind of language used by Salafis like Saudi-based Syrian Sheikh Adnan al-Aroor.(8) “Alawis don’t pray and they don’t fast, and even if they did pray they don’t have mosques to do it in”, al-Qaradawi said. “What’s worse, Assad isn’t even religious, he’s secular; he doesn’t believe at all”, he added. Al-Qaradawi also ridiculed the Twelver Shia doctrine on the disappeared Mahdi, the 12th imam whose absence has played a key role in Shia community and political organisation, and he argued that Shias were flocking to Syria on the basis of ‘asabiyya ta’ifiyya, or zealous sectarian partisanship.(9)

Al-Qaradawi’s call was arresting because he is a respected religious scholar, seen as reflective of a Sunni Muslim mainstream outside the orbit of Saudi Wahhabism who was depicting the Syrian conflict in such stark sectarian terms; in this, he was ceding ground to Wahhabi sectarianism. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, taunted al-Qaradawi, viewed with disdain in Saudi official circles for his Brotherhood connections, for revising his previous position. Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist close to royal circles, particularly former intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal, called on al-Qaradawi to renounce fatwas issued since the mid- 1990s supporting suicide bombings against Israelis whose application had been extended by others to justify al-Qaeda operations against the Saudi regime.(10) Al-Qaradawi should show “proper spiritual leadership” by adopting the positions of former Saudi mufti Abdulaziz Bin Baz rejecting the suicide bomb, Khashoggi said.(11)

Perceptions of Saudi Arabia’s Shias

Another widely circulated article by Khashoggi – who presents himself as a Saudi liberal – demonstrated how the sectarian nature of the Syrian war has influenced the views of Saudi Shia.(12) Rhetorically addressing a Shia acquaintance, he argued that Salafi extremists among the Syrian rebels are a small unrepresentative group who will not affect the future of Syria once Assad is overthrown; yet, at the same time, Hezbollah and Shias in general dominate among those who support the regime. The implication was that Shia were the ones to start sectarian warfare in Syria, this year, and not Salafi Sunnis (with Gulf backing), two years ago, and Saudi Shia needed to state which side they are on. “When we look at the Shia space in our midst we are shocked to see a cohesive bloc, ready to fight and die on Bashar’s side”, he said, citing Iraqi and Kuwaiti Shias. “In my own country, Saudi Arabia, Shia clerics and public figures have gone quiet about what’s happening in Syria […]. I don’t want to be sectarian, and I hate my growing sectarian sentiments, but you [Saudi Shias] are not helping me.”(13)

A product of the tense atmosphere after Nasrallah declared his fight in Qusayr, Khashoggi’s comments ran against a trend, reflected most plainly in the media, to calm tensions domestically despite continuing unrest within the kingdom itself. Protests and clashes with police broke out during the first wave of the Arab uprisings in 2011 over long-standing complaints of marginalisation and state discrimination, the only sustained protest movement in the country since then. The interior ministry’s response was harsh and has remained so through the terms of three ministers in the past year: Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz, his brother, Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, and, since November 2012, his son, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. At least 20 people have died, including 11 since he took over; security forces regularly stage house raids in search of men on a list of 23 Shias wanted over the unrest; Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr went on trial in March 2013 on charges of “sowing discord” and “undermining national unity” after he was shot in a car chase with police last year; and, also in March, the ministry claimed that it had uncovered an Iranian spy ring.

But earlier this year the interior ministry instructed Saudi media to avoid singling out Saudi Shias when discussing political issues involving Iran and Syria.(14) Two key appointments in the past year, governor of the Eastern Province, Prince Saud bin Nayef, and governor of the Qatif sub-region, Khaled al-Sufayan, were also welcomed by Shia community leaders who have acted as a conduit for dialogue with the authorities. In an apparent effort to prevent protests spreading from Qatif to al-Hasa, minister of the National Guard, Prince Mut’ib bin Abdullah, made conciliatory comments during a visit to the oasis last year.(15) Though there have been no formal talks between Shia community leaders and the authorities in Riyadh since 2011, there have been meetings with al-Sufayan since his appointment; the Shia community views the al-Hasa governor, Badr bin Jalawi, however, as a deeply sectarian figure. These ebbs and flows in sectarian approaches are typical of Riyadh’s relationship with its Shia citizens and do not affect underlying sectarianism. In the view of Saudi Islamist thinker Mohammed al-Ahmari, “the level of sectarian language is different from six months ago – it’s less, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there”.(16)

Attention shifts to the Muslim Brotherhood  

With the Egyptian military’s removal of the Brotherhood government of Mohammed Morsi in July this year, Saudi Arabia shifted its attention towards Egypt, supporting defence minister Abdulfattah al-Sisi and attacking the Islamists. Political Islam is a threat to Saudi Arabia because it represents an alternative Islamic model based on electoral politics. The contrast between the Brotherhood’s Islamist project and the Islamic model of Saudi Arabia is stark. In Saudi Arabia, the class of religious scholars (ulama) oversee sharia courts, leaving the ruler to take care of the day-to-day business of running the state and sovereign issues of foreign policy in particular. While Islamist parties are in power in Tunisia and Gaza, it is the Brotherhood in Egypt that presents the biggest threat because of Egypt’s size, proximity, and position as a political and cultural motor for the Arab region, as well as the sheer numbers of Egyptians who live in Saudi Arabia or are regular visitors on pilgrimage.

One key element of Saudi Arabia’s response to the rise of the Brotherhood has been the promotion of Salafi parties, a relatively new phenomenon in Egypt.(17) Mainly represented through the Nour party and charities linked to the party that have received Saudi money, Salafis have checked the Brotherhood’s advance as the most powerful force in Islamic politics and presented critical obstacles to the Brotherhood’s efforts to open up to Iran after Morsi won presidential elections in 2012. Morsi’s decision early on as president to attend an Organisation of Islamic Cooperation meeting in Tehran raised the possibility that one of the Saudi leadership’s worst fears was about to be realised. But for every two steps forward with Iran, Morsi always appeared to take one step back as he tried to balance conflicting interests – during the Iran trip, for example, he conspicuously avoided a one-on- one meeting with then-president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

In March and April of this year, the situation became critical, from Saudi Arabia’s perspective, when the Morsi government pushed forward with concrete measures to improve Egypt’s relationship with Iran. The first commercial flight in 34 years from Cairo to Tehran took off, and some 50 Iranian tourists arrived in Aswan, visiting landmarks amid tight security. Fearful that Iranian tourists would take on the character of pilgrims visiting Shia historical sites, particularly those in Cairo from the Fatimid era, and that this would facilitate the spread of Shiism, Salafis staged violent protests outside the residence of Iran’s charge d’affaires in Cairo. The protesters shouted slogans like “Jihad against Shia and Hezbollah” and “Morsi, you promised us sharia, not Shias” and daubed graffiti on the walls outside his home such as the “Muslim Brotherhood sold us to Iran”.(18)

Salafis convene in Cairo with Saudi support

Saudi Arabia wants Salafism to operate within specific boundaries, however, and Saudi and Egyptian clerics breached them at a week-long conference in Cairo in mid- June 2013 to support the Syrian opposition (in an apparent Brotherhood bid to win Salafi support ahead of the mass protest planned for 30 June).(19) At a speech before tens of thousands of people at Cairo International Stadium on 15 June, Morsi announced new policies towards Syria, including the severance of diplomatic ties. Egyptian and Saudi clerics, including prominent figures like Mohammed al-Arifi, declared jihad in Syria; participants denounced Shias as “filthy” and “non-believers who must be killed”. “In the name of these good people and in the name of the Egyptian people, I implore you not to open the pure doors of Egypt to the raafida,” Saudi cleric Mohammed Hassan said, addressing Morsi. “I implore you, Mr. President, to take the leadership and pioneering role that is appropriate for Egypt.”(20) Leading Friday prayers at the Amr Ibn al-Aas Mosque in Cairo, Arifi prayed for God to smite “Assad and the Sawafis”, another anti-Shia slur.(21) The implications of rising anti-Shia sentiment directed against the estimated 250,000 Syrians living in Egypt are felt elsewhere: just over a week later a mob in a village on the outskirts of Cairo murdered four Egyptian Shias.(22)

The June conference contributed to the determination among a broad swathe of anti-Islamist groups and state players in Egypt that Morsi’s rule must end, which, in turn, may have put an end to recent Saudi attempts at a rapprochement with the Brotherhood – Saudi Arabia received Syrian Brotherhood members in Riyadh after it took over from Qatar earlier this year in managing the Syrian opposition, for example.(23) Crucially for Riyadh, the conference raised the alarming prospect of an alliance between Egyptian and Saudi clerics, both Salafi and Brotherhood, using Islamist- ruled Cairo as their base. The repercussions for Islamist political activism in Saudi Arabia could have been huge, and the prospect of Islamists winning out among the Syrian opposition and assuming control if Assad were to fall would also rise markedly. Consequently, Saudi state-sanctioned religious authorities have explicitly condemned the use of the term jihad for fear that those Saudis currently fighting in Syria – with the permission of the Saudi leadership – may bring their fight to the al-Saud family.(24) For these reasons, the predictable confluence of interests and potential collaboration between Salafis and the Brotherhood anywhere in the region is not something Saudi Arabia can countenance.

Saudi support for the coup against Morsi on 3 July was immediate and absolute, exposing Saudi concerns about the Islamist trend at home. It created a sharp rift between the government and a significant section of public opinion generally, as clerics, preachers, and rights activists expressed forthright opposition to the country’s official positions. The government reacted with a heavy hand: authorities briefly detained preacher Mohsen al-Awaji, placed Arifi under house arrest, and cancelled the You Have Rights television show, broadcast on a private Islamist channel and presented by Salman al-Odah, a prominent cleric and former political prisoner.(25) Clerical opposition to the Brotherhood stemmed, in some cases from ideological sympathy with the Islamist movement and its democratic modus operandi and in others from a general sense that, despite Wahhabi reservations over electoral politics, Islamists were nevertheless creating in Egypt a more Islamic state.(26)

Encouraged by the coup in Egypt, the Saudi government moved to directly challenge the claims of political Islam. King Abdullah expressed “pride and appreciation to citizens of the nations generally for the deep religious and patriotic sense they had shown, and understanding and general social awareness regarding the events, changes, and hateful ideological and party political pulls on the country and the Arab nation.” Saudi Islamic values were “free from the partisanship and loyalty to anything other than our Islamic religion”, he added.(27) In a similar vein, Abdulrahman al- Sudais, imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, said that some had “taken Islam and given it borrowed names, hiding behind ideological terrorism and deviant knowledge”. “The sensible people among those of faith would wonder at those who twist the words of God according to partisan pathologies, party whims, and interests with agendas and subjugation”, he went on to say.(28) The positions of both men provoked popular hash tags on Twitter, declaring that they “do not represent me”.

Preserving sectarianism to pre-empt threats

Keeping Sunni and Shia reform activists apart, locked in their regime-prescribed sectarian spaces, is one of the key strategies of Saudi’s management of the Arab uprisings, thereby preventing the formation of a large-scale movement demanding political change via the street.(29) Regional events this year necessitated a sharp swing from Shi’ism to Sunni political Islam as the target of Saudi state sectarianism, typical of the short-term ad-hoc approach that tends to characterise Saudi policy.(30) It remains to be seen if this shift will come to dominate regime discourse at the expense of familiar Shia concerns in the coming period and indeed whether a wider strategy of attacking both Sunni and Shia Islamism simultaneously is either possible or sustainable. The litmus test is whether Shia unrest remains contained and Sunni protests in Riyadh fail to kick off over the situation in Egypt, which is likely to be the case without encouragement from influential clerics.


1. Fanar Haddad, “The Language of Anti-Shi’ism”, Foreign Policy, 9 August 2013, available at anti_shiism.

2. Drama has become an arena for the sectarian tussle. Shown in July and August of this year, the TV series, Omar, about the second caliph, promoted the Sunni view that he was a model caliph, directly challenging the Shia belief that the first three caliphs were usurpers of the right to rule of the fourth, Ali. Egyptian Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, head of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, and Saudi Sheikh Salman al-Odah, a senior figure in the same organisation, approved the show in advance; Qatar funded it and the Saudi channel, MBC1, broadcast it. Raafida literally means rejectionist, a derogatory term used to describe Shias. It refers to a specific time in Shia Islam’s history when, according to the most common narrative, followers rejected the teachings of Zayd bin Ali, the grandson of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet.

3. Nasrallah expressed concern over the safety of the Shia shrine of Zainab in Damascus, but did not use sectarian language.

4. The Gulf Cooperation Council announced measures to combat Hezbollah influence in the Gulf, declaring it a “terrorist organisation”; Bahrain announced its own measures, raising fears of a new round of expulsions of Lebanese after dozens were forced out following the uprising in 2011. See Habib Toumi, “Bahrain to probe Hezbollah activities”, Gulf News, 5 June 2013, available at bahrain/bahrain-to-probe-hezbollah-activities-1.1193238.

5. Saudi government links to such groups are nebulous and hard to pin down. Some groups fighting in Syria, such as the Farouq Brigades and Tawheed Brigades, have received unofficial aid from Saudi citizens; Intelligence Chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan managed co-ordination with rebel groups via Turkey and, according to news reports, shifted focus this year to organising activities via Jordan.

6. “Top Muslim cleric Al-Qaradawi urges Sunnis to join Syria war”, Al Ahram, 1 June 2013, available at Politics-/Top-Muslim-cleric-AlQaradawi-urges-Sunnis-to-join-.aspx.

7. “Sheikh Qaradawi makes U-turn, says Hezbollah is ‘party of Satan’”, Al Arabiya, 9 June 2013, available at– east/2013/06/09/Sheikh-Qaradawi-renews-call-for-holy-war-against-Hezbollah.html.

8. Al Jazeera engaged in Wahhabi sectarianism elsewhere, running news items about the Saudi-backed Salafi leader in Lebanon, Sheikh Dai al-Islam al-Shahhal, when he called on 5 June for Sunnis to come and fight “the Safawi project”. Safawi is a derogatory term used to refer to Shias. Its context is the Safavid Dynasty that ruled Iran from 1501 to 1736 and was responsible for converting Iran to Shi’ism, so the term implies that the person it is directed at is ultimately loyal to Iran and essentially a heretic in its strongest connotation. It could be argued as falling somewhere between ‘ajam (non-Arab/Iranian) and raafida.

9. Transcript available at– 48c5-b84c-66fe7552312c.

10. Jamal Khashoggi, “What will be Sheikh Qaradawi’s next bold move?” Al Arabiya, 30 June 2013, available at– east/2013/06/30/What-will-be-Sheikh-Qaradawi-s-next-bold-move-.html.

11. Fatin Aman, “Qaradawi has passed his sell-by date” (in Arabic), Elaph, 10 July 2013, available at

12. Jamal Khashoggi, “I don’t want to be sectarian, but you’re not helping me” (in Arabic), Al Hayat, 22 June 2013, available at

13. Widely circulated, the article prompted a public response from Shia writer Tawfiq Alsaif: “What reasonable person hinges relations with his fellow countrymen on a question of foreign policy, no matter how important the issue is? Who would treat matters as serious as national unity and social peace in such a blithe manner?” See “Be sectarian or be whoever you want to be but don’t sacrifice your homeland” (in Arabic), al-Eqtisadiah, 25 June 2013, available at http://www.aleqt. com/2013/06/25/article_765499.html.

14. According to Tawfiq Alsaif, “There is a minor change from attacking Shia per se to attacking Iran and Hezbollah in particular. There were instructions that Saudi Shia shouldn’t be involved in this.” See Alsaif, “Be sectarian or be whoever you want to be but don’t sacrifice your homeland”).

15. “There’s an intention to open a new page”, said Jafar al-Shayeb, elected member of Qatif municipal council. See Hassan al-Baqshi, “Mut’ib bin Abdullah: there are some trying to put a wedge between Sunni and Shia” (in Arabic), Al Hayat, 10 July 2012, available at

16. Interview with author, August 2013.

17. Khashoggi appeared to indicate Saudi hopes of an Egyptian government with a significant Salafi make-up in a column published on 20 July: “The ‘spring’ has ended, but democracy and political Islam will remain” (in Arabic), Al Hayat, available at

18. “Salafis write obscene phrases on the home of the Iranian charge d’affaires [in Egypt], and a Salafi curses Morsi” (in Arabic), 5 April 2013, Tahrir News, available at

19. Though Nour, observing Saudi red lines, did not attend. At the same time, it flouted Wahhabi principles of obedience to the legitimate ruler by backing the army in ousting Morsi.

20. “A fiery speech by Sheikh Mohammed Hassan – to support the Syrian revolution” (in Arabic), Egypt TV News, 15 June 2013, available at watch?v=tCDa1qlJH-Y.

21. See also “Breaking News: al-Arifi announces jihad against Shias in Syria” (in Arabic), Al Kufi, 14 June 2013, available at https://

22. Some observers suspect that the Saudi clerics were being used by the Saudi government, which knew that their rhetoric in Cairo would be incendiary and help turn the military and the public further against Morsi.

23. Tawfiq Alsaif said, “That conference made the Saudi government change direction. Before it there were discussions in upper circles about possible reconciliation with the Brotherhood […]. The government feared that some clerics, Salafis, and Brotherhood were about to form a political alliance, making use of Cairo as a stronghold.” See Alsaif, “Be sectarian or be whoever you want to be but don’t sacrifice your homeland”.

24. Reese Erlich, “Saudi youth fighting against Assad regime in Syria”, GlobalPost, 13 March 2013, available at middle-east/saudi-arabia/130312/saudi-youth-fighting-assad-regime-syria.

25. Al-Odah wrote on Twitter: “The murderous coup-plotters have shown what remains of their nefariousness. They will bear the consequences of the depravity they have practiced and they will be held accountable in this world before the next”. See “Al- Odah attacks the murderers and al-Arifi condemns their arrogance” CNN Arabic, 15 August 2013, available at orifi-egypt/index.html.

26. A demonstration of this schism was a fight that broke out in one Riyadh mosque over the coup: “Fight erupts in Saudi mosque after cleric blasts Egypt’s General Sisi”, Al Arabiya, 24 August 2013, available at

27. “Minister of Interior delivers the greetings of the Custodian of the two Holy Mosques to the citizens” (in Arabic), al-Riyadh, 21 August 2013, available at http://www.

28. “The importance of unity among Muslims”, Speech by Abdul Rahman al-Sudais at the Sacred Mosque, Mecca, 23 August 2013, available at alkhutab/khutbaa.asp?mediaURL=10803.

29. The prosecution of democracy activists continued. Raif Badawi, founder of the Free Saudi Liberals website, was found guilty in June this year of insulting Islam through his online forum. He was sentenced to 600 lashes and seven years in prison. In the same month, seven others were sentenced to six to ten years in prison, each for “inciting protests” via Facebook. See “Saudi Arabia: 7 Convicted for Facebook Postings About Protests”, Human Rights Watch, 30 June 2013, available at http://– protests. And in July, Prince Khaled bin Farhan al-Saud, a minor figure in the ruling family, announced his “defection” to the camp to Islamist dissident Saad al-Fagih in London, citing political repression and corruption.

30. Neil Partrick, “Saudi Arabian Foreign Policy: Discreet Persuasion?”, The World Today, Volume 64, Number 7, 1 July 2008, available at http://www.chathamhouse. org/publications/twt/archive/view/167847.

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