Saudi Arabia’s intensifying standoff with Iran has inflamed anti-Shiite sentiment in the kingdom, resulting in displays of hostility toward the minority group that play into the hands of Islamic State’s efforts to destabilize the country.
Under King Salman, the Sunni-led kingdom has moved to counter what it sees as Shiite Iran’s interference in Arab affairs. Riyadh last year intervened militarily in Yemen against pro-Iranian Houthi rebels, and in January it severed diplomatic ties with Tehran, pressuring allies to do the same.
But the official stance has stoked simmering sectarian tensions at home. Hostility toward Shiites in Saudi Arabia is on wide display, whether on social media or in the televised speeches of hard-line Saudi clerics.
During celebrations in July marking the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in the central town of Kharj, a group of Saudi schoolgirls wearing small white crowns performed an operetta on a stage decorated with two large portraits of King Salman. They recited lines describing Shiites as “rafidha”—rejectionists, a derogatory term also used by Islamic State militants—and called Shiites “the soldiers of the Zoroastrians,” a reference to Iran. Such casual displays of sectarian intolerance have become more common than they were a few years ago.
The Grand Mufti, Saudi Arabia’s top religious authority, recently delivered a sermon calling Shiites liars who are trying to destabilize the Muslim world, according to a report by the official state news agency. The office of the Grand Mufti didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The virulently anti-Shiite Islamic State, also known as Daesh, has targeted the minority group in Saudi Arabia.
“Support for Daesh in the Arab world is driven by the overlapping anti-Iranian, anti-Shia narrative,” said Toby Matthiesen, a senior research fellow at the Middle East Centre at the University of Oxford. “And it has turned against them.”
Islamic State was behind most of the 30 terrorist attacks that have occurred in Saudi Arabia since the militant group’s rise in 2014, and that have killed dozens, according to the interior ministry. Many of them targeted Shiites in the country’s oil-rich Eastern Province.
“When we talk about sectarian hatred, that is the theme in the Middle East that is leading to terrorist action more than anything else,” said Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki, the ministry’s spokesman. “And we are not immune.”
The bombings targeting Shiites led Riyadh to deploy additional security forces to protect Shiite worshipers. After three Islamic State bombings on a single day in July, including one near a Shiite mosque, King Salman spoke out against the threat of “extremism and violence.”
Saudi officials say Iran is largely to blame for the Sunni-Shiite tensions because of its interference in the region through Shiite allies. Yet Saudi Arabia has promoted a fundamentalist interpretation of Sunni Islam that regards Shiites as heretics, a view shared by radical jihadists.
“It is extremely difficult to distinguish what is anti-Iran and what is anti-Shia. Is this a sectarian conflict, or only geopolitical?” says Ibrahim Fraihat, a senior foreign policy fellow at Brookings Institution in Doha. “There is a very blurred line between the two.”
Relations between the countries deteriorated in January after an Iranian mob, angered by Saudi Arabia’s execution of the influential Shiite cleric and activist Nemer al-Nemer, stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran and its consulate in Mashhad. That led to the diplomatic break.
Prince Turki al-Faisal, a member of the ruling royal family and Saudi Arabia’s former spy chief, attended a meeting of Iranian opposition groups in Paris in July where he called for the downfall of the Islamic Republic in a televised appearance.
Shiite leaders have praised the government’s efforts to beef up security, but they said authorities should do more to stop sectarian rhetoric.
“If you write in the newspapers that they are ‘rafidha’ or ‘fifth column’ or ‘tools used by Iran’ then it is normal that the other side would view them as enemies,” said Mohammed al-Jubran, a Shiite activist from the eastern desert oasis of al-Ahsa.
Under Saudi law, people who inflame sectarian hatred can be criminally prosecuted. Mr. al-Turki, the interior ministry spokesman, said authorities are committed to enforcing the law but that it is hard to control extremist views, particularly on social media.
Saudi authorities have also moved to quell Shiite dissent after the execution of Mr. al-Nemer.
One prominent Shiite cleric, Sheikh Hussein al-Radhi, was arrested in March after he delivered a sermon in which he attacked the Saudi government and praised the Iran-backed Shiite Lebanese militia and political group Hezbollah, which Saudi Arabia considers a terrorist organization.
A court in Riyadh is currently hearing the case of 30 Saudi Shiites who were arrested in 2013 for allegedly spying for Iran. The charges they face include attempting to spread the Shiite faith in the predominantly Sunni kingdom.
Taha al-Hajji, a lawyer who represented them, said his former clients aren’t getting a fair trial and blamed it partly on the tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
After Mr. al-Hajji was called in for questioning by Saudi authorities in March, he fled Saudi Arabia fearing that he, too, would face prosecution. He has applied for asylum in Germany.