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  • The Other Saudis: Shiism Dissent and Sectarianism by Toby Matthiesen
  • Alexander Khaleeli
The Other Saudis: Shiism Dissent and Sectarianism, by Toby Matthiesen, 2015. New York: Cambridge University Press, xxiv + 277 pp., £19.99. isbn: 978-1-10761-823-7 (pbk).

Until recently, there has been a tendency both inside and outside of the Academy to conflate Shi͑ism with Iran. A recent case in point of this phenomenon – and one that directly relates to this review – was seen in international media coverage of Shaykh Nimr al-Nimr’s beheading by the Saudi regime. Even more significant than the fact that some international news outlets (at least initially) described al-Nimr as an ‘Iranian cleric’ is that many, even when they correctly identified al-Nimr as a Saudi Arab religious leader, framed the execution in the context of a regional struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia rather than as part of longer-running internal tensions between the Saudi monarchy and its Shi͑a subjects upon which these regional conflicts have come to supervene in recent decades. It is doubtless as a result of these conflicts that repressive Arab regimes frequently label their Shi͑a citizens as ‘Iranian’ (as Saddam did with many Shi͑a Iraqis) and thereby deny them a sense of belonging within the state and undermine their political grievances; moreover a great deal of anti-Shi͑a sectarian propaganda conflates Shi͑ism with Iranian-ness, using pejorative terms such as ‘Majūs’ (‘Zoroastrian’) and ‘Ṣafawī’ (Safavid) to evoke a sense of cultural and religious foreignness.

Within the academy, this association between Shi͑ism and Iran has meant that the study of ‘other’ Shi͑a communities in other regions have been overlooked, including some (such as those in Bahrain and al-Aḥsā͗) that are truly ancient centres of the faith. These ‘other Shi͑a’ differ significantly from their coreligionists in Iran not only in terms of their culture but also their political situation; with the exception of post-2003 Iraq, all non-Iranian Shi͑as exist as national minorities, whether numerically or functionally. This has been remedied in recent years by the appearance of new works such as Monsutti et al.’s The Other Shiites, Matthiesen’s Sectarian Gulf, and, in particular, a slew of articles and [End Page 114] monographs on the Shi͑a of Iraq and Lebanon – where academic interest is undoubtedly driven, at least in part, by geopolitics – but there are others that remain neglected. Of these, the Saudi Shi͑a are doubly overlooked; marginal both as Shi͑a and Arabs and whose political situation vis-à-vis the Saudi government makes access to them difficult. Aside from Fouad Ibrahim’s The Shi͑is of Saudi Arabia (2006), and a few other chapters and articles in larger works, little has been written on their history since Juan Cole’s remarks in Sacred Space and Holy War and certainly nothing that covers the last decade.

The Other Saudis is a welcome corrective to this state of affairs. In it, Toby Matthiesen outlines the political history of the Shi͑a in Saudi Arabia, focusing largely on the Twelver Shi͑a community that exists in the oil-rich Eastern Province of the country. In particular, the work illustrates the precarious position of the Shi͑a in Saudi Arabia as subjects of a monarchy whose authority, both past and present, depends in no small part on the continued support of other virulently anti-Shi͑a subjects within the kingdom, and how they have attempted to address this situation in the last century and the challenges they have faced in the course thereof.

This work shares many of its concerns with the author’s previous publication, Sectarian Gulf, in particular the function of anti-Shi͑a sectarianism in the construction of religious-national identities in certain Gulf States and its utility as a means to stifle popular demands for reform and representation. However, this work differs from the above both in its geographical focus (Saudi Arabia rather than Bahrain and Kuwait) and its historical perspective. Beginning with the conquest of Aḥsā͗ and Qaṭīf by Ibn Sa͑ūd from the Ottomans in 1913 and continuing until the present day...