Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Hizbullah Al-Hijaz: A History of the Most Radical Saudi Shi'a Opposition Group

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Hizbullah Al-Hijaz: A History of the Most Radical Saudi Shi'a Opposition Group

Article excerpt

This article discusses the emergence, ideology, and activities of the Saudi Shi'a opposition group Hizbullah al-Hijaz and its clerical wing, the Tajamu' 'Ulama' al-Hijaz. The group has played a significant but little known role in Saudi-Iranian relations since 1987 following its creation as a rival to the other Saudi Shi'a opposition group, the Islamic Revolution Organization. Hizbullah al-Hijaz was pro-Iranian and followed the Marja'iyya of Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamene'i. Although it officially denounced any engagement with the Saudi leadership, it profited from a general amnesty in 1993. After it was blamed for the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996, most of its members were arrested and its organization dismantled.

From its inception in 1987, Hizbullah al-Hijaz was a cleric-based group aligned with Iran, modeling itself on Lebanese Hizbullah. It advocated violence against the Saudi regime and carried out several terrorist attacks in the late 1980s. Due to an improvement in Saudi-Iranian relations, it shifted its activities more towards non-violent opposition. Although opposed to negotiations with the Saudi leadership, it benefited from a general amnesty in 1993. After Hizbullah al-Hijaz was blamed for the Khobar bombings in 1996, most of its members were arrested. The crackdown and the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement following the accession of Muhammad Khatami in 1997 led to the disappearance of the organization, although its clerical leaders continue to be popular in parts of the Eastern Province. While the Khobar bombings have been discussed widely, only a few academic studies deal partially with Hizbullah al-Hijaz.1 The founding of the organization, its ideology, its role in Saudi-Iranian relations, and the activities of its members before and after the Khobar bombings have never been the subject of a distinct study.

Saudi Shi'a Clerics in Qom: The Formation of Tajamu' 'Ulama' al-Hijaz

In the 1970s, a group of Saudi Shi'a,2 who were studying in Najaf with Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, became acquainted with Khomeini's teachings. After the Iranian Revolution they moved to Qom, where, in the mid-1980s, they formed Tajamu' 'Ulama' al-Hijaz, which later became part of Hizbullah al-Hijaz.3 The clerical wing of the Tajamu' 'Ulama' al-Hijaz operated out of the Hawza al-Hijaziyya (Hijazi seminary) in Qom.4 Their names indicate that, like Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, they used the term "Hijaz" for the whole of Saudi Arabia to undermine the legitimacy of the Al Sa'ud.5 They also called themselves Hijazin or Khat al-Imam, the line of Imam (Khomeini), the name by which the group is still referred to colloquially in Saudi Arabia.6 Although there is a small Shi'a community in Medina, the founders of Tajamu' and Hizbullah come from the Eastern Province, mainly from al-Ahsa, Safwa, and Tarut.

The biographies of the founders of the movement share some similarities: Husayn al-Radi7 was born in 1950/51 in 'Umran in al-Ahsa. He studied in Najaf with Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, and after the latter was killed in 1980, he moved to Qom. There he continued his studies with Hossein Montazeri and then became the supervisor of the Hawza for the Saudi students (al-Hijazin). In this position, he developed what he calls "special relationships" with Ayatollahs Hossein Montazeri - at that time the designated successor of Ayatollah Khomeini - and Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi.8 Shahroudi was also a disciple of Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr and left Najaf for Qom in 1979 to teach in the Hawza.9 Another leader of Tajamu', Hashim al-Shakhs, was born in 1957 into a famous clerical family in al-Ahsa. His relative, Sayyid Muhammad Baqir al-Shakhs, was an early politically active Shi'a cleric and co-founder of the "Society of 'Ulama' in Najaf" in 1959/60.10 This connection facilitated his move to Najaf in 1972, where he became a follower of Ayatollah Khomeini.

In the late 1970s, al-Shakhs returned to Saudi Arabia and started preaching in the village of Qarah in al-Ahsa. …

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