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Sectarianism as counter-revolution: Saudi responses to the Arab spring

Al-Rasheed, Madawi (2011) Sectarianism as counter-revolution: Saudi responses to the Arab spring. Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism, 11 (3). pp. 513-526. ISSN 1473-8481

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Identification Number: 10.1111/j.1754-9469.2011.01129.x


Saudi Arabia is a wealthy oil producing country with a small population not exceeding twenty-five million, one third of which are foreigners. The authoritarian Al-Saud ruling family has controlled the country since 1932 (Al-Rasheed 2010). Historically, the Saudi rentier state used economic largesse in return for loyalty to the regime (Gause 1994; Luciani and Beblawi 1987). Yet the literature on the rentier state does not highlight other strategies that are often deployed to gain loyalty and force the population into submission. Sectarianism as a regime strategy is often ignored in the literature on the rentier state especially in countries where there is religious diversity. In response to the Arab Spring, sectarianism became a Saudi pre-emptive counter-revolutionary strategy that exaggerates religious difference and hatred and prevents the development of national non-sectarian politics. Through religious discourse and practices, sectarianism in the Saudi context involves not only politicising religious differences, but also creating a rift between the majority Sunnis and the Shia minority. At the political level, the rift means that Sunnis and Shia are unable to create joint platforms for political mobilisation. Neither essentialist arguments about the resilience of sects nor historical references to seventh-century Sunni–Shia battles over the Caliphate (Nasr 2007) can explain the persistence of antagonism and lack of common political platforms among Sunnis and Shia in a country like Saudi Arabia. Sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shia can never be understood without taking into account the role played by an agency much more powerful than the sects themselves, namely the authoritarian regime. In addition to massive oil rents, the Saudi regime has at its disposal a potent religious ideology, commonly known as Wahhabism, that is renowned for its historical rejection of the Shia as a legitimate Islamic community (Steinberg 2001).

Item Type: Article
Official URL:
Additional Information: © 2011 Association for the Study of Ethnicity and Nationalism
Divisions: Middle East Centre
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HC Economic History and Conditions
H Social Sciences > HN Social history and conditions. Social problems. Social reform
Date Deposited: 15 Aug 2014 11:07
Last Modified: 15 Sep 2023 14:23

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