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Saudi Arabia casts wary eye on its Shiites

By Michael B. FarrellStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 18, 2007


Sadek al-Jubran says he's all too familiar with fatwas that declare him an infidel.

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As a member of a religious minority in a country without religious freedom, Mr. Jubran grew up with discrimination. It's something Shiites like him have regularly faced in this conservative Sunni-ruled kingdom – in the streets and at school, in courtrooms and at the office.

Over the past decade, however, Shiites have managed to gain a larger stake in Saudi Arabian society. They've seen incremental reforms, getting elected to local councils and being allowed to observe religious holidays openly.

But now, many worry that their steady progress is being checked. With a Sunni-Shiite cold war descending on the region, Saudi Arabia appears to be hardening its sectarian battle lines. That, experts say, could mean that it once again will regard its Shiite minority, mainly clustered in eastern oases like this one, solely as enemies of the state.

Recent rumblings from clerics and politicians alike recall the days when the kingdom braced against spreading influence from Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution. Today, Saudi Arabia is on edge from the deepening civil war in Iraq and a possibly nuclear Iran.

"The plunge back into the abyss of the 1980s has been accelerated," says Toby Jones, an assistant professor at Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pa., who has written extensively about the Shiites of Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province.

"You don't see [Saudi King Abdullah] quashing any of this very, very public anti-Shiite rhetoric," says Mr. Jones. "That's a sign that he either isn't interested in doing it or that he can't."

Last month, 30 top Saudi clerics released a statement calling on Sunnis throughout the region to back the Sunni insurgents in Iraq against Shiites. This was followed by a fatwa from prominent cleric Abdul Rahman al-Barak on Dec. 29 attacking Shiites.

"The rejectionists [Shiites] in their entirety are the worst of the Islamic nation's sects. They bear all the characteristics of infidels," he said in the religious ruling, according to a translation from Reuters.

Jubran, a lawyer and rights advocate from Al Hufuf, a Shiite city, says that religious rulings like the one issued by Mr. Barak hardly exist within a vacuum. They influence the Sunni majority and provoke a militant minority. And, he adds, "The danger of a fatwa is that it's fixed and can't be changed."

Shiites make up about 10 to 15 percent of the country's roughly 16 million nationals, according to a 2005 International Crisis Group (ICG) report. Most live in the Eastern Province, where oil was first discovered and which remains the base for much of the petroleum industry. While they have been persecuted since Saudi Arabia's formation in 1932, it wasn't until their coreligionists in Iran overthrew the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, that Shiites were emboldened to challenge the Saudi monarch.

"After the revolution, Shiites demonstrated to be able to celebrate imams' birthdays ... many were arrested," says Ali al-Marzouk, an activist from Al Qatif, another Shiite enclave. He was jailed between 1981 and 1983, he says, like hundreds of other young Shiite activists in the region, for taking to the streets to demand religious and social reforms.