With Shiites rising across the region, Saudi Arabia's grow impatient
Older leaders among the minority aim to peacefully address discrimination but warn that younger Shiites are pushing for militancy.
Awwamiya, Saudi Arabia
Despite the vast oil fields underfoot, this rural village of struggling farmers and narrow streets is a long way from the gleaming riches and wide boulevards of Riyadh.Skip to next paragraph
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It is also far from the strict Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam favored by the Saudi government, since most Awwamiya residents are Shiite Muslims.
These religious and economic realities help explain the graffiti on view here: "Death to Wahhabi," "Down with the government," and "We will not forget our prisoners."
Somewhere here, too, Sheikh Nimer Al-Nimer, a firebrand Shiite cleric in his late 40s, is hiding from police. He is wanted for questioning, officials say, about an angry sermon threatening secession and his possible behind-the-scenes role in Sunni-Shiite clashes in the holy city of Medina earlier this year.
"We've been patient a long time hoping to get our rights," says one Awwamiya resident. "But it's useless."
Recent developments in Medina and Awwamiya reflect deepening frustration among Saudi Arabia's Shiite minority at continuing discrimination in jobs and schools as well as government tolerance for hateful anti-Shiite rhetoric from Wahhabi clerics, according to more than a dozen Shiite activists, writers, and clerics interviewed in the oil-rich Eastern Province.
Shiite leaders also warn of rising militancy in a younger generation that is losing faith in the older leadership's approach of working peacefully for change.
"The problem now we are facing ... is that we are trying to convince those guys that, 'OK, slow down; there are things we are trying to do for you,' " says Sheikh Hussain Al Bayat, a Shiite cleric in Qatif.
"But they would like to see something fast. And that's what we are trying to tell [government] leaders: That we are now in control of these people ... but there will be a time they will override us."
Shiites rising – but not here
This impatience comes at a time of ascendant Shiite power in the Arab world. In Iraq, Shiites have replaced centuries-long Sunni minority rule. Bahrain's majority Shiite population is challenging its Sunni government. And Saudi Arabia's regional rival, Shiite Iran, is aggressively projecting its influence into Arab affairs, particularly in Lebanon and Gaza.
These developments have heightened age-old Shiite-Sunni tensions. After a disagreement in Islam's infancy over choosing the prophet Muhammad's successor – Shiites favored family succession, not community consensus – Sunnis emerged dominant. Today they constitute an overwhelming majority of Muslims worldwide, while Shiites make up only 10 to 15 percent.
Nowadays, the Saudi government is increasingly sensitive to dissent from its Shiite minority, which accounts for around 10 percent of the population. But Shiite leaders say it is local problems – not outside events – that drive Shiite frustration.
"The feeling that they are discriminated against is very deep inside themselves," says Jafaar Al Shayeb, a Shiite member of Qatif's municipal council.
Fifteen years ago, the Saudi government invited exiled Shiite dissidents home. Initial negotiations brought improvements. Shiites now publicly celebrate their holiest religious holiday, Ashura, commemorating the martyrdom in Iraq of their 7th-century saint – Imam Hussein – at the hands of a Sunni army. And the government is slowly giving permission to build Shiite mosques.
Shiites get business licenses and obtain government scholarships to study abroad. Their religious books are easily obtained from street vendors. And personal relations with Sunni co-workers are good, many Shiites say.
Discrimination of a minority
However, Shiites face difficulties getting hired for government jobs and are routinely passed over for promotions. All top positions in the municipality of Qatif – a nearly 100 percent Shiite city – are held by Sunnis. No Shiite ambassadors represent the kingdom abroad.