Saudi Arabia casts wary eye on its Shiites

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

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.

The crackdown prompted Mr. Marzouk and many others to flee the country. He sought refuge in Iran. In 1993, he and others returned following a historic meeting between the region's Shiite leaders, including Jubran, and King Fahd, at which the king invited exiled Shiites to return and freed political prisoners in exchange for their allegiance. He also promised to address Shiite concerns, according to the ICG report.

"There was the welcoming back of the Shiites in the Eastern Province. It was not made a fuss about at the time to avoid offending Wahhabi sensibilities," says Robert Lacey, author of "The Kingdom: Arabia and the House of Saud," referring to the conservative Wahhabi clerics who hold sway with the monarch and have been responsible for much of the acerbic language against Shiites in mosques and in fatwas.

Until now, he says, there have been "Wahhabi sheikhs meeting with Shiite leaders ... away from the headlines. The reason it's not more publicized is for the same reason there aren't women drivers ... because there is a conservative majority."

While 1979 was a formative moment for the country's Shiites, many here say publicly that they are now committed to working within the system of local and national councils for continued change. And their greater economic foothold is evident in the new SUVs on the streets of Al Hufuf and the recently built villas of its neighborhoods.

Many Shiites say they hold better jobs than ever before in the region's oil companies. In Al Qatif, Shiites have been allowed to celebrate Ashura, the commemoration of Imam Hussein, whom they see as the third Imam and intended successor of the prophet Muhammad; Sunnis consider this view blasphemous.

"Shiites don't believe the basics [of Islam]," says Hamzah al-Tyer, imam of al-Rajhi mosque in Riyadh, where much of the vitriol against Shiites originates. He says that Sunni religious leaders address only Shiite leaders – not their followers – as "evil Muslims."

He adds that Shiites "are getting more power and we are getting less."

Dwight Bashir, a senior analyst with the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, says that "Shiites are concerned about [implications of regional issues] affecting their progress."

But the situation has changed since 1979, he says. "A lot of the Shiite population have it pretty good in the Eastern Province and they don't necessary want to rock the boat, especially if they are seeing some progress on these things. They might be holding hope."

Mr. Bashir says that a minority might embrace militant tactics if the monarch begins cracking down, threatening sectarian bloodshed. While there is evidence that King Abdullah, both as king and before taking the throne, has made some efforts to address Shiite concerns, analysts say he still must placate a very conservative Wahhabi base.

Ibrahim al-Mugaiteeb, a longtime rights advocate, runs the only independent, albeit unlicensed, rights group in the country, Human Rights First Society. "The situation is far from even close to what we want it to be," he says. But, he adds, "at least there is movement."

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