Yemen backlash: Gulf Shia portrayed as 'enemy within'

Yemen backlash: Gulf Shia portrayed as 'enemy within'
4 min read
16 April, 2015
Feature: Shia communities in the Gulf face increasing sectarian hostility at home as their governments battle Iranian influence in Yemen, says Paul Raymond.
The war in Yemen has had domestic blowback [AFP]
The Saudi-led war in Yemen has sparked an outpouring of nationalist rhetoric in the Saudi press. Local papers have slammed Iran for what they perceive as its interference across the region, from supporting Hizballah in Lebanon to backing the Houthis in Yemen.

Last week, al-Jazirah newspaper's editorial stated: "When Iran felt that its plans were eroding and decaying, it started activating its agents in the Gulf, who constitute a fifth column. They are a group of traitors, who have cut all the ties that connected them to their nations."

One recent cartoon portrayed Iran as a slavering dog, desperate to get its teeth into the Arab world.

But Iran is not the only target of vitriol. Shia minorities within Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait stand accused of being Iranian stooges, spies, terrorists and a threat to national security. The rhetoric is particularly vicious in Saudi Arabia.

"The Persians have been the enemy of the Arabs since the beginning of history," declared Ziad Muhammad al-Ghamdi in his article, Awamiya and the dens of treachery on in early April.

According to the writer Awamiya, a majority-Shia Eastern Province town, was "afflicted by terrorist traitors who were possessed by evil... and pointed guns in the face of their country and fellow citizens".
     The Persians have been the enemy of the Arabs since the beginning of history.
Ziad Muhammad al-Ghamdi, Saudi commentator

That article was written after the death of a Saudi policeman in a gun battle with militants in Awamiya - one of a number of incidents that have raised domestic tensions.

"If you read the newspapers, it's like the war in Yemen is against the Shia," a human rights activist in Qatif, eastern Saudi Arabia, told al-Araby al-Jadeed.

As al-Araby al-Jadeed has reported, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain have cracked down on domestic opposition to the war in Yemen, particularly targeting Shia activists.

The sectarian overtones of the war have trickled into public debate on Shia within the kingdom.

"Whether you criticise the war or agree with it, you're accused of treachery and being an agent simply because you're Shia," said the activist in Qatif.

Riyadh launched its Yemen campaign in late March to crush Yemen's Houthi rebels, push back Iranian influence and restore Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi to presidential power.

No-win situation for Shia

The Saudi public has largely supported the war, including Shia such as Tawfiq al-Saif, a prominent activist who believes the campaign will boost national security.

But coverage in the tightly-controlled local media and statements by clerics have played on sectarian themes.

"Every Muslim should do his duty in the Ummah's battle to chase away the Safavids and their henchmen and stop them polluting the land," wrote Naser al-Omar, a Saudi cleric with more than a million followers on Twitter, on Tuesday. "Safavids" is used by some Arabs to insult Iranians.

An activist in Riyadh told al-Araby that sermons at locals mosques were now full of references to fighting Shias.

Saudi officials have in large part avoided openly sectarian language. However, when two police officers were killed by unknown attackers in Riyadh in April, Prince Saud bin Nayyef bin Abdel Aziz, the governor of the Eastern Province, broke the official protocol.
     Governments taking part in the war in Yemen have used it in a sectarian way to create divisions at home.
Nawaf al-Hendal, Kuwait watch

He talked of "evil filth" among the residents of his province, calling them "descendants of the fickle Safavid Abdullah Ibn Saba", a semi-mythical figure in Islamic history who was accused of seeking to destroy Islam from within.

Shia in Saudi Arabia fear that this kind of talk is creating a dangerous environment in the country, and activists across the Gulf report similar problems.

"Governments taking part in the war in Yemen have used it in a sectarian way to create divisions at home," Nawaf al-Hendal, who runs the human rights group Kuwait Watch, told al-Araby.

"These regimes are using sectarianism. There is a dangerous sectarian divide because of the war, and because they've promoted the war in a sectarian way."

This is the second part of a mini-series about the impact of the war in Yemen on domestic politics in the Gulf. To read the first part, click here.