February 28, 2006

Saudi Shi’ites enjoy new freedoms laced with fears

By Andrew Hammond

QATIF, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - For Shi'ites living on
Saudi Arabia's east coast, freedom is an invisible line in the

"Over there it's Dammam and if you hold a Shi'ite gathering
you are arrested straight away. In Qatif here, you can do what
you want," said Hussein as he drove along the road that
separates the two municipalities in the Eastern Province.

Saudi Arabia's minority Shi'ites, long viewed as heretics
by authorities, are slowly testing government pledges to let
them practise their religious rites more freely -- a change
overseen by King Abdullah who ascended the throne last year.

But the new freedoms are tentative and have come laced with
fresh fears, exposed dramatically by last week's attempt to
blow up the world's biggest oil processing plant at Abqaiq in
the Eastern Province, where most of the kingdom's oil wealth

The failed attack by al Qaeda suicide bombers was the first
direct raid on a Saudi energy target since the group launched
attacks aimed at toppling the U.S.-allied monarchy in 2003.

There is no suggestion that the attack was in any way
linked to the Shi'ites, a minority in the ultraconservative
kingdom dominated by a rigid form of Sunni Islam, Wahhabism.

But it strengthened latent fears among the community that,
even as it enjoys a new degree of tolerance, it could be
exposed to the kind of sectarian violence ripping through
nearby Iraq.

Encouraged by their new freedoms, Shi'ites say many of
their number are thinking of returning from self-imposed exile
to a country that since its inception in 1932 has considered
them heretics or even agents for nearby Iran.

"We're all happy. They've been trying to hold us down for
as long as I can remember. It's as if they have finally given
up," said retired military official Ali al-Gassem, who as a
Shi'ite found a glass ceiling limiting his career prospects.

"But it's not enough, it's just the beginning. We need
positions, as teachers, in the police force, in government."


Last month, thousands of Shi'ites tested the limits of
religious tolerance by taking to the streets of Qatif to
commemorate Ashura, the biggest event in their calendar.

Many of the young people in the procession wore trousers,
shirts and pullovers -- a subtle rejection of the traditional
white robe and headscarf that is obligatory in courts and other
public offices and considered a mark of loyalty to the state.

The commemorations also reflected a desire for greater
freedom since Iraqi Shi'ites emerged from decades of repression
under Saddam Hussein after the 2003 U.S.-led war.

The Iraqi example also resonates on another, more worrying
level in the Eastern Province, where residents said they feared
they could become targets for Sunni extremists allied to al
Qaeda, which has been blamed for bombing a Shi'ite shrine in
Samarra last week, bringing Iraq to the brink of civil war.

"It's something we are aware of but we don't ever discuss
it in public," one resident said.

The attack on Abqaiq has given those fears added bite.

"The Sunni-Shi'ite war in Iraq could spread into the rest
of the Gulf," said political analyst Mansour Alnogaidan. "Many
Saudis have gone to Iraq where they attack Shi'ites, and they
will continue against these targets when they return."


More than 2 million Shi'ites are thought to live in the
Eastern Province -- out of a country-wide population of nearly
24 million, including around 6 million foreign workers.

Animosity between Sunnis and Shi'ites goes back to a
centuries-old religious schism that still poisons relations.

In the towns and villages of Qatif, Hussein and his friends
say religious police now allow them to practise their rites.
But as soon as Shi'ites step outside the boundaries of their
run-down towns and villages into the new cities of Dammam and
Khobar, they enter the rigid world of Wahhabism.

At evening gatherings in Qatif, Shi'ite intellectuals and
clerics review claims of abuse carried out by religious police
who are charged with maintaining Wahhabi's strict moral code.

They mention a couple arrested in Medina because the
woman's face was uncovered. They said her husband was asked to
sign a document renouncing Shi'ism for his wife to go free.

"The king is serious about allowing diversity but there are
residues of previous behavior and culture. To change that takes
time," says cleric Sheikh Fawzi al-Seif. "This is still the
government of one region and one sect."

A report by the International Crisis Group last year said
Saudi Arabia risked undermining a decade of mainly peaceful
sectarian ties unless it offered Shi'ites a bigger government
role and curbed discrimination.

"They want us to be closed to the world and no one to know
about us," says Hussein, driving near some of the vast oil
fields that make Saudi Arabia the world's biggest producer.

"They want to restrict us and make us live under a certain
ceiling, so that we can't rise any higher in society."

Saudi political analyst Mai Yamani said the position of the
Shi'ites reflected a wider problem of disenfranchised
communities in Saudi Arabia.

"There are so many people who are politically and
economically marginalized and it's not gotten better," said
London-based Yamani, citing the Shi'ites and tribes in the far
north and south.

"The marginalization of the regions is still going on, via
the politics of discrimination."