The geometric inventiveness of Arab artisans never fails to delight my eye. The sampling of motifs you see in the pics above is typical of what Saudi artisans find appealing. The last pic shows my favorite shop — housewares, including the huge cookpots Saudis use for making enormous kabsas (info here), ample enough to feed an entire village. Kabsa is the Saudi national dish of meat and rice, rather like a biryani but not quite so sophisticated as the Mughal taste treat you get in a good Indian restaurant. I loved wandering in the houseware shops looking at all the pots and pans. I never bought anything for my own kitchen since I lived in a townhouse that could have been lifted in toto from some suburb in the American Southwest. My range was American, a 1980’s number with four electric burners, and I’d have been in big trouble had I built a fire on my patio large enough to heat up one of the biggest cookpots on offer at the souk. So I looked and touched, but didn’t buy.
All the examples shown above are of secular ornament. It can be fanciful and free-spirited in a way that religious ornamentation usually is not, especially in Saudi Arabia. When it comes to the matter of religion in Hofuf, we can’t avoid discussing the issue of the Sunni/Shia division in the Kingdom. From the Federal Research Division’s country study on Saudi Arabia (here) comes this information, useful even though the study dates from 1992:
Shia are a minority in Saudi Arabia, probably constituting about 5 percent of the total population, their number being estimated from a low of 200,000 to as many as 400,000. Shia are concentrated primarily in the Eastern Province, where they constituted perhaps 33 percent of the population, being concentrated in the oases of Qatif and Al Ahsa. Saudi Shia belong to the sect of the Twelvers, the same sect to which the Shia of Iran and Bahrain belong. The Twelvers believe that the leadership of the Muslim community rightfully belongs to the descendants of Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet, through Ali’s son Husayn. There were twelve such rightful rulers, known as Imams, the last of whom, according to the Twelvers, did not die but went into hiding in the ninth century, to return in the fullness of time as the messiah (mahdi) to create the just and perfect Muslim society.
From a theological perspective, relations between the Shia and the Wahhabi Sunnis are inherently strained because the Wahhabis consider the rituals of the Shia to be the epitome of shirk (polytheism; literally “association”), especially the Ashura mourning celebrations, the passion play reenacting Husayn’s death at Karbala, and popular votive rituals carried out at shrines and graves. In the late 1920s, the Ikhwan (Abd al Aziz ibn Abd ar Rahman Al Saud’s fighting force of converted Wahhabi beduin Muslims) were particularly hostile to the Shia and demanded that Abd al Aziz forcibly convert them. In response, Abd al Aziz sent Wahhabi missionaries to the Eastern Province, but he did not carry through with attempts at forced conversion. Government policy has been to allow Shia their own mosques and to exempt Shia from Hanbali inheritance practices. Nevertheless, Shia have been forbidden all but the most modest displays on their principal festivals, which are often occasions of sectarian strife in the gulf region, with its mixed Sunni-Shia populations.
Shia came to occupy the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder in the newly formed Saudi state. They were excluded from the upper levels of the civil bureaucracy and rarely recruited by the military or the police; none was recruited by the national guard. The discovery of oil brought them employment, if not much of a share in the contracting and subcontracting wealth that the petroleum industry generated. Shia have formed the bulk of the skilled and semiskilled workers employed by Saudi Aramco. Members of the older generation of Shia were sufficiently content with their lot as Aramco employees not to participate in the labor disturbances of the 1950s and 1960s.
In 1979 Shia opposition to the royal family was encouraged by the example of Ayatollah Sayyid Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini’s revolutionary ideology from Iran and by the Sunni Islamist (sometimes seen as fundamentalist) groups’ attack on the Grand Mosque in Mecca in November. During the months that followed, conservative ulama and Ikhwan groups in the Eastern Province, as well as Shia, began to make their criticisms of government heard. On November 28, 1979, as the Mecca incident continued, the Shia of Qatif and two other towns in the Eastern Province tried to observe Ashura publicly. When the national guard intervened, rioting ensued, resulting in a number of deaths. Two months later, another riot in Al Qatif by Shia was quelled by the national guard, but more deaths occurred. Among the criticisms expressed by Shia were the close ties of the Al Saud with and their dependency on the West, corruption, and deviance from the sharia. The criticisms were similar to those levied by Juhaiman al Utaiba in his pamphlets circulated the year before his seizure of the Grand Mosque. Some Shia were specifically concerned with the economic disparities between Sunnis and Shia, particularly since their population is concentrated in the Eastern Province, which is the source of the oil wealth controlled by the Sunni Al Saud of Najd. During the riots that occurred in the Eastern Province in 1979, demands were raised to halt oil supplies and to redistribute the oil wealth so that the Shia would receive a more equitable share.
After order was restored, there was a massive influx of government assistance to the region. Included were many large projects to upgrade the region’s infrastructure. In the late 1970s, the Al Jubayl project, slated to become one of the region’s largest employers, was headed by a Shia. In 1992, however, there were reports of repression of Shia political activity in the kingdom. An Amnesty International report published in 1990 stated that more than 700 political prisoners had been detained without charge or trial since 1983, and that most of the prisoners were Shia.
I knew people from Qatif and got their side of the story about what it’s like being Shia in KSA. While the people of my acquaintance were for the most part professional and not suffering too badly, it was clear to me that they lived very separately from the Sunni majority and that Qatif and the villages around it were not places a Sunni would think to go unless there was a very good reason to do so. I received invitations to visit people there, but the United States had already placed the area under full travel ban, so that if an American citizen went there and got into trouble the US government would do nothing to help. Consequently, I didn’t go, not wanting to tempt fate. My white face would have stuck out like a sore thumb and the last thing I needed was to be kidnapped by some group needing a useful hostage.
Hofuf is much less tense a place in that regard. To be honest, when I visited I was completely unaware of any noticeable divide between Shia and Sunni communities. Shortly before I left Saudi Arabia, however, there were bombings (laid at the feet of ISIS) at some Shia mosques in Hofuf. The tensions doubtless exist, it’s inconceivable that it should be otherwise given the nature of the beast, but during my visits the issue was not impressed on my attention through things I couldn’t avoid noticing.
In actuality, the Shias have the best bits of Eastern Province — the oases. Qatif is also an oasis region and has farms with vegetables and fruits, something you’ll look long and hard to find anywhere else in the area. The culture of the Shias is different and feels noticeably different to an outsider like me. Shias in Eastern Province are Saudi Arabs, true, but their links are to Shia culture outside the country, predominantly in Iran where the seat of Shia devotion lies. Many of them have Shia relatives in Bahrain, as well, where the Shia population forms the majority although the rulers are Sunni. The links of Shias in Eastern Province with the Shias in Iran and Bahrain are among the main reasons Saudi Shias are treated badly by the majority Sunnis, for whom Iran is anathema and in whose opinion the troubles in Bahrain — occasioned by an uprising of the Shia majority against the Sunni rulers — seem the height of treachery. The conflict between the two groups has gone on for centuries and will doubtless continue well into the future. I educated myself about it but kept well away comment on the political situation. As I’ve mentioned in other posts on Saudi Arabia, the expat’s Golden Rule there is Keep Thy Big Mouth Shut.
If you consider the matter strictly from the viewpoint of aesthetics, however — which of course I do — Shia culture has a vast wealth of architecture, ornament and art worthy of the greatest admiration on its own merits. Think of the Meidan Emam in Isfahan, for example, a UNESCO World Heritage Site (info here), or the Imam Reza Mosque in Mashhad. The link of Saudi Shia culture to the artistic traditions of Iran constitutes for me an enrichment, not a pollution, but I’d certainly not voice that opinion openly in Saudi Arabia except in close company in Qatif or Hofuf.
I only photographed one mosque in Hofuf, a lovely building near the Souk. I’m not sure whether it’s Sunni or Shia, to be honest. It doesn’t really matter to me, the aesthetics of the place are the important thing and there’s plenty to like about it whether it’s Wahhabi Sunni or a “Husseynia” as Shia mosques are sometimes called. To the pics: