The Shiite minority in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in recent months is showing signs of assertiveness. The latest incident involves comments from the imam of the Kaaba in Mecca, Sheikh Adil al-Kalbani, who said during an interview with the BBC Arabic that while the situation of the common Shia was debatable, Shiite clerics were apostates who should not be allowed to join the kingdom's highest religious body, the Supreme Council of Ulema. Al-Kalbani, the son of an immigrant, was appointed as the first black imam of the Kaaba earlier this year as part of Riyadh's efforts to counter charges of racism. His remarks triggered widespread reaction from within the Saudi Shiite community (estimated to be as much as 20 percent of the kingdom's population and concentrated in the oil-rich Eastern Province), with Saudi Shiite clerics calling for the government to dismiss al-Kalbani. This development comes amid increased sectarian tensions in the aftermath of clashes
between security forces and Shiite worshipers in the city of Medina in February. The following month a key Shiite cleric, Sheikh Nimr Baqer al-Nimr, threatened in a provocative sermon that the Shia would secede from the kingdom if their rights were not respected. Although Shiite unrest in the face of persecution by the Wahhabi majority is not a new thing in the Saudi kingdom, it was largely contained until the incident in Medina. Openly demanding the dismissal of the imam of the Kaaba is rather unprecedented — an indicator of the degree to which the Saudi Shia have been emboldened. This situation comes at a time when the Saudi government is pursuing a process of political and religious reform designed to contain ultraconservatism within the Wahhabi religious establishment. A better attempt to integrate the Shia into the country's political and religious structures would be a logical outcome of this process, particularly since the inclusion of ulema representing the Hanafi, Maliki and Shafii schools of Sunni jurisprudence in the Supreme Council, which for the longest time only included those adhering to the Hanbali school of the Wahhabis. Al-Kalbani's remarks are very telling in this regard — especially his opposition to the inclusion of Shiite clerics within the religious hierarchy of the state. There is no indication that Shiite clerics will be included in the top religious entities of the state anytime soon, but the fears of the Wahhabi ulema, especially the more hard-line ones, are understandable, as they face challenges on two fronts. On one hand, they see how the state is pushing its reform agenda aggressively
, particularly with the recent replacement of the heads of the Supreme Judicial Council and the head of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, as well as the appointment of the first female Cabinet member. On the other hand, they see the regional rise of the Shia and how the state is under pressure to extend greater recognition to this minority community. Likewise, the Shia are also taking advantage of a new regional reality characterized by the rise of their brethren in neighboring Iraq, the push by Iran to emerge as a major regional player, and the growing power of Hezbollah in Lebanon and the al-Houthi Zaydi (an offshoot of the Shia) rebels south of the border in Yemen
. Domestically, the Shia see the Saudi government's move against the jihadists and other extremist elements within the country, and the subsequent reform process, as an opening to advance their own cause and expand their space within the state and society. The coming leadership transition
, with a terminally ill crown prince and an aging monarch, further provides impetus to the Saudi Shia to press ahead with their plans for greater influence within the state. It is very likely that the Saudi Shia not only are encouraged by their fellow Shia in the region, but also have assistance from them — especially Iran, a historic rival
of Saudi Arabia. While Tehran has significant influence among the Shiite populations in places like Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, Kuwait, Yemen and other places, Saudi Arabia is a prize given its position as the pre-eminent Arab and Islamic power and the world's largest oil producer. It is unclear to what degree the Iranians have a hand in the growing restiveness within the kingdom's Shiite community, but what is certain is Iran's intent to enhance its influence within Saudi Arabia and in turn use it to destabilize the monarchy. From Iran's point of view, this is not just about Tehran's long-term strategic vision to emerge as a major player in the region; it also is a means to counter threats in the short-term. Iran's defiance on the nuclear issue has raised the threat of a potential U.S. and/or Israeli military action
against the Islamic republic, and Iran fears that its Arab neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia, will likely collaborate in such a move. Thus, it is important that Tehran demonstrate to Riyadh that it can cause it pain via the kingdom's Shiite minority. What this means is that the Saudis are in a very difficult situation on both the internal and external fronts. Domestically, Riyadh cannot pursue a reform agenda and not give recognition to the Shia, who threaten to stir the pot within a key pillar of the state — the Wahhabi religious establishment. On the regional level, Saudi Arabia needs to be able to insulate its Shiite community from Iran and the empowered Arab Shia in Iraq and Lebanon. This is why a swift response was seen to the controversy created by the imam of the Kaaba, with a statement from Saudi Prince Mishaal bin Abdulaziz, chairman of Allegiance-Pledge Commission and King Abdullah's half-brother, in which he said that all Saudis are Muslims and denounced sectarianism. Clearly, the Saudis are under a tremendous amount of pressure from multiple sides. And all of this is happening at a time when the kingdom is in the throes of significant pending in-house changes
. Despite their historic resilience, the question is whether (and how) the Saudis will be able to balance between their Wahhabi allies and Shiite minority, and thus counter Iranian advances.