COVID Restrictions and Sectarian Tensions in the Middle East


The COVID-19 pandemic has forced governments across the globe to impose a number of restrictions on everyday life, including on peoples’ mobility, in order to limit community transmission of the virus. These measures have had diverse effects on various aspects of social life, including communal religious practices. In the GCC, in response to COVID-19, the six states closed mosques and suspended congregational prayers, barred entry to sacred sites, and also shut down other places of worship (churches, temples, and community praying centers). Additionally, Saudi Arabia has announced the cancelation of the Umrah and Hajj pilgrimages, while Iran and Iraq have closed a number of Shia shrines and holy mausoleums. These closures of religious infrastructure, as well as the suspensions of customary rituals and practices, have been justified as difficult but necessary for ensuring the health and safety of the general population. Experience and data suggest that the large gathering of people that takes place at religious centers pose a risk for the virus to spread. While Gulf authorities have used public health as the basis for curtailing religious practices, given the existing underlying sectarian tensions in the region, there is concern that some of these measures may inflame sectarian tensions as well as be used deliberately by the states to undermine the religious rights of certain communities on a targeted basis.

Religious subgroups, in these countries, have expressed reservations with the government decisions. By certain marginalized groups, these public health interventions are viewed as yet another means by which the authoritarian states in the region are pursuing specific political agendas. These restrictions on religious practice are seen as interfering not only with rights to religious expression, but as yet another means to suppress, repress, and control particular religious communities.

The Eastern Qatif province, which lies about 400 kilometers from the capital city of Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, and has a Shia population of about 500,000 people, was sealed off by the Saudi government in early March. The measure was taken when the province was declared an epicenter of the kingdom’s coronavirus outbreak. The area was under complete lockdown for almost two months, with all movement in and out of the governorate prohibited. Although Saudi officials have recently eased the lockdown, there is still a curfew in place and limits on people’s movements. Despite the fact that there have been COVID-19 cases across other parts of the country, Eastern Qatif remains the only province that was completely sealed off by the Saudi state. The Shia population of the region has had continuous strained relations with the Sunni state government in the past, and minority Shia communities across the country have faced historical marginalization and discrimination by the state. It is from within this framework that the selective lockdown is being viewed by Shia religious authorities and activists as a reflection of the state’s sectarian impulses. Officially Saudi Arabia has justified the selective decision as based on the threat to public health as many people in Eastern Qatif regularly visit Iran for religious pilgrimages, and these travelers were bringing the infection back with them. While officially, Saudi nationals have been banned from traveling to Iran since 2016, Shia pilgrims from the kingdom are reported to continue to visit major shrines in Iran, especially in the cities of Qom and Mashhad, usually traveling via Kuwait, Iraq, Oman, and UAE. 

Some of the GCC states, such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwait, hold Iran responsible for spreading the contagion throughout the region. Iran registered its first corona case on February 19, 2020. Due to lack of swift action and negligence on the case of the government officials, many of whom also contracted the disease—Iraj Harirchi, the deputy health minister being one—the country witnessed a rapid increase in the number of cases and became the second-largest epicenter of the virus after China by the end of February. Following this, many neighboring countries started reporting an increase in the number of cases within their borders, attributing the rise to the return of Shia Muslims and other visitors from Iran.  

According to the United Nation World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), Iran has witnessed a steady growth in religious tourism, with 7.29 million foreign tourists visiting the country in 2018. As per the available data, around 24% of these tourists came from Iraq and 2% from Bahrain. Though the holy sites in Iran are open for the pilgrims all year round, a large number of visitors are recorded to visit the sites during key months and events, such as Muharram, death anniversaries of holy figures and dust cleaning ceremonies – a ritual for cleansing, washing, and applying incense to holy tombs and mosques. Pilgrims from GCC countries also visit these sites annually, usually accompanied by one or more family members.

Iran and Saudi Arabia have long been regional rivals, and Saudi Shia Muslims have often been regarded by the Saudi government with suspicion and even accused of having divided loyalties. Shia citizens in the kingdom fear that even after the COVID-19 infection rates subside, some of the restrictions may remain to further curtail their mobility and prevent them from deepening transnational ties with Shia communities, not just in Iran but also in Iraq and Bahrain.  

Similar developments can be observed in Bahrain, where the return of more than 1,000 Shia pilgrims had been delayed by the Bahraini government, until mid- April, in light of the current developments due to COVID. However, Bahraini citizens who had been visiting other countries, UAE, Oman, Jordan, Egypt, and Turkey, at the time of the outbreak in the region, were able to return to the kingdom without any delays. These Shia Muslims had been on a pilgrimage to the city of Mashhad to visit the holy shrine of the eighth Shia Imam, Ali Ibn Musa-al Ridha. The Bahraini government preferred to leave these citizens stranded in Iran for more than two months without any clear guidance of when they could return than bring them back and quarantine them at homes or allocated centers. Bahrain, like its neighbor Saudi Arabia, has also blamed Iran for the increase in numbers of coronavirus cases in the country and has rebuked Tehran for not taking more precautionary measures. 

Though Shia Muslims in Bahrain amount to more than 75 percent of the population in the country, they are overseen by a Sunni government and have also been subjugated to periodic discrimination from the state. This situation has intensified after the Arab Spring in 2011, in which the Shia population in the country were held responsible for uprising against the government. Bahrain also views Iran as a regional adversary and has often blamed Tehran for backing the country’s sectarian unrest. Over the years, the government in Bahrain has taken many measures to counter the Shia population, one of which was granting citizenship (which is hard to attain in the GCC) to non-Bahraini Sunni Muslims in order to increase their numbers among the local citizens. Now the government seems to be employing COVID-19 restriction measures, entry into and out of the country, to further control the Shia population in the kingdom.

The measures to curb the spread of COVID-19, though necessary and in line with WHO guidelines, are viewed by certain sectors of the population in the Middle East as a means for the governments to encroach on rights of religious expression. A question that is on the minds of many Muslims, not just in the Middle East but around the world, is whether they will be able to return to the pre-COVID religious practices. Or if these current religious restrictions would be used in the post-coronavirus years to contain religious dissent, marginalize minority religious expression, and hinder religious practices that are seen as a means of building ties with enemy regimes and nations. The pandemic has affected many aspects of life, and these new policies and measures will continue to impact religious and other practices as the situation develops. A further examination of whether the current COVID policies will be used by states in the Middle East as a means to control their Shia population in the future is required. 

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Article by Misba Bhatti, Research Analyst at CIRS


For further reading:

Ahmed, Qanta A., and Ziad A. Memish. “The Cancellation of Mass Gatherings (MGs)? Decision Making in the Time of COVID-19.” Travel Medicine and Infectious Disease (2020): 101631.

Diwan, Kristin Smith. “Royal Factions, Ruling Strategies, and Sectarianism in Bahrain.” In Sectarian Politics in the Persian Gulf, edited by Lawrence G. Potter, 143-179. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Heydari Chianeh, Rahim, Giacomo Del Chiappa, and Vahid Ghasemi. “Cultural and Religious Tourism Development in Iran: Prospects and Challenges.” Anatolia 29, no. 2 (2018): 204-214.

Perazzo, Bayan. “On Being Shia in Saudi Arabia.” Institute for Gulf Affairs Policy Brief.

Wesley J. Wildman, Joseph Bulbulia, Richard Sosis & Uffe Schjoedt. “Religion and the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Religion, Brain & Behavior 10, no. 2 (2020): 115-117.