Saudi Arabia treads carefully as it tries to douse threat of sectarianism


Moderate Saudi Shiites worry that Iran or other outsiders could use the extremists to stir up trouble in mainly Sunni Saudi Arabia – or that the militants could prompt a backlash from Sunni hard-liners – either way, giving the government a reason to clamp down on the Shiite minority.

The Saudi government almost never comments about the possibility of restiveness among its Shiites, but it is likely concerned about it.

Shiites are concentrated in the kingdom’s eastern region, the center of the vital oil industry. They are also at a crossroads of other significant Shiite regions – southern Iraq; Shiite-majority, Sunni-ruled Bahrain; and Iran, which is promoting itself as the faith’s main defender.

Saudi officials have expressed deepening concern about Shiite-Sunni tensions around the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, a top U.S. ally, has even reached out to work with Iran, a top rival, to try to calm the Iraq and Lebanese crises fueling those tensions.

The situation in the Saudi Shiite community is one factor the kingdom has to weigh as it carefully treads in its diplomatic attempts to douse the sectarian fires.

Very few Saudi Shiites have spoken publicly of the problem of gunmen in Awwamiya and a few other poor Shiites villages, fearing retaliation. But Nabih Ibrahim, an Awwamiya city councilman, and a handful of writers spearheaded an Internet campaign to urge an end to the phenomenon.

“They represent a danger,” said Ibrahim, a Shiite. “We have talked to authorities and raised the issue in public gatherings. … The security apparatus can put an end to this phenomenon.”

Ibrahim said Awwamiya’s gunmen number fewer than a 100 people in the town of 25,000. The extremists are not organized – residents talk of them more as religious-minded bullies, armed and expressing hardline views.

One sign of their presence, residents say, is the automatic gunfire that can be heard during weddings on weekends – a way for the extremists to show off their illegal weapons.

In many Arab countries, such celebratory gunfire is common. But not in Saudi Arabia, where such displays are frowned upon and weapons are strictly controlled.

The hard-liners also often wear small pictures of Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Lebanon’s Shiite militant group Hezbollah, and paste his pictures on the street despite a religious edict from Shiite clerics that banned the practice as un-Islamic. The Saudi government has been critical of Iranian-backed Hezbollah.

Awwamiya is one of the poorer Shiite towns, with high unemployment and school dropout rates and greater crime rates than elsewhere in the kingdom. It also is surrounded by sparsely populated palm groves where extremists can hide.

More prosperous Shiite cities like Qatif have not seen the phenomenon of extremist gunmen.

Shiites make up around 15 percent of Saudi Arabia’s 20 million citizens, and they complain of discrimination. The dominant Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam considers them infidels. Recently, prominent Wahhabi clerics have stepped up their rhetoric against Shiites, with one even calling for their expulsion.

Saudi Shiites frequently have to defend themselves against Sunni claims they might be a potential fifth column for Iran. They underline that they are loyal to Saudi Arabia and look to Iran only for spiritual inspiration.

The Saudi government is under pressure from its powerful Wahhabi clergy to check the ascendancy of Shiites in Iraq and Lebanon and back Iraq’s Sunnis. The United States is also trying to rally its Arab allies to isolate Iran.

Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt are Washington’s staunchest Arab allies. But as Sunnis, they belong to the same sect that is waging a fierce battle against the U.S. in Iraq.

King Abdullah, in a rare move for a Saudi monarch, recently lashed out at alleged attempts to convert Sunnis to the Shiite branch of Islam – though he didn’t directly accuse Iran of being behind them. Foreign Minister Prince Saud, in an interview with the French daily Le Figaro, warned Iran against “meddling in Arab affairs.”

Still, Saudi Arabia can’t throw its weight fully behind Arab Sunnis because it doesn’t want to make the Iranians and Shiites feel threatened. Doing so could also fuel Shiite-Sunni tensions that could spill over onto Saudi soil.

Saudi Arabia has responded to Iran’s offer to cooperate in resolving regional conflicts by sending an envoy, Prince Bandar, to Tehran, Washington and Moscow.

Experts say Iran wants the Saudis to act as a bridge with the Americans to put together new rules of engagement in the region, including a less antagonistic U.S. attitude toward Iran’s nuclear program. In return, they say, Saudi Arabia wants Iran to rein in Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iraq’s Shiite militias.

“Iran is in a confrontation with the U.S.,” said Saleh al-Qallab, a former Jordanian minister. “That’s why Iran has reached out to Saudi Arabia.”

Abdul-Rahman al-Rashed, who heads the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya TV, wrote in a column in Asharq al-Awsat Monday that it took only an hour of phone contacts between Tehran, Riyadh and Beirut to end unrest last week in Lebanon – an indication that things get resolved when the two giants agree.

On the domestic front, Saudi Shiites insist they will not allow Tehran to use them as tools.

But Ibrahim said the government must develop places like Awwamiya.

“Backwardness … creates opportunities for others to meddle,” said Ibrahim.

More Then 600 Workers Protest In Sharjah

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *