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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.

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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.

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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.

The community was especially disappointed when King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz failed to appoint any Shiites to top positions in his February cabinet reshuffle, although he did name five Shiites to the 150-member advisory Shura Council.

Sheikh Al-Bayat also noted that while boys' schools in mostly Shiite areas have Shiite principals, that is not the case with girls' schools. Also, Shiites assert that all religion teachers in government schools are Sunnis.

Naseema Dawood Assadh, a housewife in Safwa who helps run training programs for young mothers, said her son was told by his Sunni teacher that he was "not a Muslim because you visit graves and that's not a Muslim belief." Sunni teachers, she added, sometimes "try to change children's beliefs."

Qatif resident Hussain Alak, a writer and human resources officer in a private firm, compared the condition of Saudi Shiites to that of African-Americans before the civil rights movement. When he spoke with some black Americans on a recent trip to the United States, he said, "we really felt we are listening to Shias."

While blacks were fighting for their rights in the 1960s, Sayyid Hassan Al-Nemer was growing up as a Shiite boy in Saudi Arabia. Now a cleric in Dammam, he says he has seen many changes since then, but more are needed.