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Saudi Shiites Take Hope From Changes Next Door

May 08, 2003|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

QATIF, Saudi Arabia — All but a few of the people who live in this old city on the Persian Gulf are Shiite Muslims, but in public schools the children often are told that Shiites are infidels bound for hell. Over the years, members of the faith have been imprisoned, flogged and held in solitary confinement for long stretches. Protests from international human rights groups go unheeded.

But in another sign that the war in Iraq could have consequences elsewhere in the region, the Shiite minority community of Saudi Arabia is hopeful that the liberation of their Iraqi brethren from the regime of Saddam Hussein could put significant pressure on the Saudi government to ease up as well.

Crown Prince Abdullah, Saudi Arabia's acting leader, met last week with a dozen Shiite leaders who presented a petition seeking equal political and religious rights. There are signals that the monarch may be prepared within the next year to consider naming the kingdom's first Shiite Cabinet minister -- though the move is sure to set up a showdown with the powerful religious establishment that until now has given the Saudi royal family its very legitimacy.

The images last month of more than a million Shiites in the streets of Iraq for an annual celebration banned under Hussein was not lost on Saudi Arabia's 900,000 Shiites, who have rarely been allowed to conduct large, public religious displays in a country that sees itself as the center of Sunni Muslim orthodoxy.

While no one is predicting a revolution overnight in a kingdom almost defined by its resistance to change, many Shiites say the Iraqi experience may be opening the door to political reforms on this side of the border.

"What has happened there in Iraq, it will of course affect our country, our life, even affect people's thinking, and perhaps show the way for how to approach these goals in a peaceful way," said Mohammed Jabran, an influential Shiite businessman from near Qatif.

"I hope we can really learn something from the situation in Iraq," added A. A. Abdul Hai, a Shiite political science professor at King Saud University in Riyadh, the capital.

"But it's very hard," Hai added. "There remain in this country other groups that will benefit from not giving a minority their rights -- fanatic, closed-minded persons. But in the end, it is the national good that would be served if the rightful and justified demands for equality materialized. It will help to stabilize the society and bring social peace and coexistence."

The problem is that Shiites, the majority of the population in neighboring Iraq, Iran and Bahrain, make up less than 10% of the population in Saudi Arabia. And while most Sunnis view them as fellow, though possibly misguided, Muslims, Shiites are regarded as infidels by the Saudi religious establishment, which adheres to the ultraconservative and austere variation of Sunni faith known as Wahhabism.

Saudi religious leaders see the Shiite veneration of saints and shrines, celebration of the prophet Muhammad's birthday and other rituals as sinful. One leader last year went so far as to call for religious war against Shiites, who split with Sunnis in the 7th century.

Yet there are signs that even the religious establishment may be ready to move. Last month, the nation's senior religious leader, Sheik Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah al Sheik, declared that charging other Muslims with disbelief -- essentially, the official attitude toward Shiism until now -- is not permitted under Islam.

"Charging other Muslims with whom one may differ as disbelievers results in murdering innocent people, destroying facilities, disorder and instability," said the revered, white-bearded mufti, whose word on religion is nearly as important as is the Saudi monarch's on secular policy.

In their meeting with the crown prince last week, Shiite leaders raised the issue of political participation for members of a minority group who traditionally have had very little. There has been only one Shiite ambassador, who served recently in Iran. There have been no Shiite Cabinet ministers, and few Shiites in the military or in influential jobs with government-owned industries.

There was no Shiite among several new Cabinet ministers named last week, but some Shiite leaders said they were not losing hope.

"If you ask me about the priority of assigning five ministers who are Shias or the government publicly announcing that Shias are Muslim, I'd take the second one," said Sadek Yaseen Ramadan, another Shiite businessman. "Or if the government said our citizens are full citizens of the country -- I will take that instead of 10 ministers."

The potential for political turmoil in the Shiite community has been a source of concern for both the Saudi and U.S. governments, in part because the Shiites' numbers are concentrated in Eastern province, the petroleum belt overlying the biggest share of the world's oil reserves.

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