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.

Caryle Murphy
Sayyid Hassan Al-Nemer, a Shiite cleric, says that it's the right of the Sunni majority to control the government, but they should take better care of the minority.
Caryle Murphy
In Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province town of Awwamiya, populated mainly by Shiites, graffiti artists rebelled against their Sunni leaders, writing, "Death to the Government."

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.

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.

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.

"It is the right of the majority to take [control of] the government, but they should take care of the minority," says Mr. Nemer. "The solution is to open the country, give freedom for political action, and accept others as they are.... There has to be a minimum of democracy."

Sheikh threatens to secede

The frustrations of Shiites here in Eastern Province bubbled up several months ago after three days of clashes between the government and Shiites in Medina, Islam's second-holiest city.

The government says the clashes were set off by Shiites defying regulations at the city's ancient Muslim cemetery. Those regulations bar women from entering, and ban collecting soil or sand from the burial site. They are enforced by religious police, whose Wahhabi beliefs regard some Shiite practices as heretical.

Of the 71 people briefly detained, 22 were Sunni and 49 Shiite, says a government source who declined to be named.

Ministry of Interior spokesman Gen. Mansour Al Turki said in a recent Monitor interview that the government prohibits certain religious practices in Medina and Mecca in order not to offend the majority of Muslims, who are Sunni.

"The kingdom is very much concerned that all Muslims have the right to perform hajj, to visit the Prophet's Mosque in Medina. But all Muslims have to respect each other," Mr. Turki said. "We will not allow any group of Muslims to try to do anything which we feel will make the other party upset." Since all Muslim sects agree on "90 or 95 percent of things," he added, "that's what we should concentrate on."

But Nemer, the Shiite cleric, says Shiites should be able to practice their rituals. "Shia will keep being Shia and will keep going to [holy graves in Medina] and will practice their beliefs there," he said. "So if the other side expects that it will be able to force his way of visiting [holy graves], we will have a problem again."

The Medina clashes set off several days of Shiite protests in Eastern Province. Awwamiya's Sheikh Al-Nimer then gave his provocative Friday sermon, before going into hiding. "We will demand our dignity be restored in all permissible ways.... If it comes down to it ... we will call for seceding from this nation," he proclaimed.

For several weeks, sympathizers of the sheikh staged demonstrations and security forces set up checkpoints. Interior spokesman Turki said authorities have no interest in escalating tensions but want to question Al-Nimer about Medina events because "we believe that these people have been influenced by somebody in their community."

Shiite community leaders publicly rejected Nimer's secession talk, adding privately that his remarks had hurt their cause.

"He spoke of secession; this phrase was a very, very big mistake and he shouldn't have said it," says Tawfiq Al Saif, a writer and Shiite activist in Dammam.

But Shiite grievances remain, Mr. Saif added, and times have changed.

"Most Shia are believing in their rights and they believe they will get their rights," he said. "They believe the world has changed to their benefit, not against it."

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