Toby Matthiesen, a research fellow at the University of Cambridge and the author of The Other Saudis: Shiism, Dissent and Sectarianism. Follow him on Twitter @TobyMatthiesen.
The Islamic State in Najd declared that the recent deadly attacks on Shia mosques in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are the start of a campaign to rid the Arabian Peninsula of all the “polytheists” and “rejectionists.” Further attacks are possible across the Gulf, for example in Bahrain or Oman. The Shia of the Gulf have thus emerged as a key target of IS as the group tries to expand there and destabilize Gulf governments.
The Islamic State seeks to export a tactic that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and IS’s predecessor organizations had successfully employed in Iraq: target Shia civilians in order to fuel sectarian strife, which will militarize some Shia and push them towards Iran, in turn driving some Sunnis to support IS. In the Gulf and particularly in Saudi Arabia, IS aims to cause a rise in Shia militancy (there has been a largely peaceful protest movement since 2011) and increase distrust between the Shia and the state and between the Shia and the rest of society. In many ways, the Shia are an easier target for the Islamic State than foreigners holed up in their fortified compounds, and attacks on them are less controversial within mainstream Saudi society than attacks on Sunni Saudi soldiers and policemen are.
In Saudi Arabia, IS can feed on decades of anti-Shia incitement in schools, Islamic universities, and the media. Indeed, many of the Gulf militants that join the jihad in Syria and Iraq are driven by a desire to counter Iranian and Shia influence—foreign policy goals that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states are also working toward.
The attacks on Gulf Shia have thus highlighted the religious policies of the Gulf countries, in particular Saudi Arabia’s discrimination against its own Shia minority. The Saudi government has stepped up security and claims to have foiled even larger bombings of Shia mosques. But there are no indications that any of the religious policies will be changed. But without a reversal of the anti-Shiism that underpins Saudi domestic and foreign policies, IS will be able to further exploit one of the Gulf state’s main contradictions: that there are Shia in all the Gulf states who are the “other” of the religious nationalism propagated by some Gulf states. The killing of dozens of Gulf Shia at the hands of (Saudi) bombers loyal to IS has thus highlighted a problem that many Gulf governments would rather remain silent about—but this is no longer possible.