Shiites See an Opening in Saudi Arabia
Municipal Vote in East Could Give Suppressed Minority Small Measure of Power
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 28, 2005; Page A14
QATIF, Saudi Arabia -- As thousands of Iraqis braved the threat of attack to vote last month, more than a dozen men gathered in Mohammed Mahfoodh's spacious salon here. Lined with sofas and lit by a glass chandelier, the room is a frequent meeting place for the leaders of a Shiite Muslim community that for decades has been subjected to government neglect, religious persecution and job discrimination.
Recalling the scene later, Mahfoodh said his neighborhood was noisy with celebration that evening as many people returned from the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca in the west. But the main event was on the television screen in his living room, which remained on most of the night.
"There was something there that appealed to us here," said Mahfoodh, 38, who edits a cultural magazine called the Word that can only be distributed here underground. In Iraq, he said, "they are struggling to build a new state, with equal rights for all, while radicals are trying to defeat them. This idea, this kind of struggling, is happening here."
It is also about to show tangible results. For the first time in 70 years, the Shiites of eastern Saudi Arabia, the only part of the kingdom where they are a majority, are preparing to win a small measure of political power. Inspired by the Shiites' success in Iraq's elections, Shiite leaders here say they intend to sweep to victory in municipal voting scheduled for Thursday and begin using the authority of elective office to push for equal rights. The voting also will likely result in at least some Shiite representation on two nearby councils.
The prospect of even incremental Shiite political gain has alarmed Sunni Muslim leaders across the Middle East, who fear that long-suppressed Shiite communities such as this one astride the kingdom's lifeblood oil industry will push for an ever-greater role in government. Sunni heads of state have warned the Bush administration that the democratic reform it is encouraging in Iraq and Saudi Arabia could result in a unified "crescent" of Shiite political power stretching from here through Lebanon, Iraq and into Iran.
Shiites make up roughly 15 percent of Saudi Arabia's 25 million people; the vast majority of Saudis are Sunnis, many of whom do not consider Shiites true Muslims. In a kingdom founded on one of the most conservative branches of Sunni Islam, religious prejudice has hardened into official policy and given the highly organized Shiite community here strong incentive to vote after years of sometimes violent activism.
About 40 percent of Qatif's eligible voters registered in recent weeks, twice the percentage that did so in Riyadh, the capital 200 miles to the west, where the first phase of municipal elections took place Feb. 10. About 150 candidates, some of whom spent years in exile because of their civil rights activities, are competing for five seats on Qatif's 10-member council. The other half will be appointed by the government.
Although the councils have little political power, they will provide a public venue for discussing employment discrimination, government-imposed limits on the construction of Shiite mosques and schools, and reforms that could give Shiites a greater share of political influence. Shiite leaders say they will proceed with caution, fearing they may overstep the kingdom's invisible lines of permitted speech and give the royal family a reason to roll back the modest democratic reforms implemented in recent years.
"People here are ready to participate, even though this is still not up to their expectations," said Jafar Shayeb, a leading Shiite civil rights activist, who returned from exile in the United States 12 years ago and is seeking a council seat. "But we all realize we must work through this in order to gain even more."
The twin minarets of an enormous Sunni mosque loom over the old center of this city, a government gift that dwarfs the crumbling mud fortress and concrete homes around it. But only a few of the faithful walk through the mosque's arched doors for evening prayer.
In its shadow is the Shiite mosque, a shop-size jumble of tin, wood planks and masonry capped by a tiny minaret. Shiites worship inside its moldering brick walls and in the dozens of other antique mosques across this city, landmarks to discrimination.
Shiite leaders say the local government, filled out by Sunnis from outside the region at its upper ranks, had banned the construction of Shiite mosques for 30 years and now normally limits their size. Fearful of angering Sunni clergymen, many of whom subscribe to the severe strand of Islam known as Wahabbism, the government does not contribute to those projects or allow Shiite texts to be brought into the country. Most arrive through smugglers.
Since Saudi Arabia's founder, King Abdul Aziz bin Saud, brought this region into the kingdom, promising Shiites the freedom to live and worship as they wished, the government has rarely kept its promises, Shiite leaders here say. Though thousands of Shiites work in the area's oil refineries, they have never risen much above the lowest ranks at Saudi Aramco, the behemoth state oil company whose headquarters are a few miles south of here in Dhahran.
Social unrest here has often been triggered by outside events, making Iraq's recent elections particularly worrisome to Saudi leaders, who political analysts say opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq partly because of its potential effect on this region.
In 1979, nine months after Iran's Islamic revolution put a Shiite theocracy in power in that country across the Persian Gulf, an uprising here resulted in the death of 40 people and gave rise to several now-defunct Shiite militant groups. Bombings at Aramco facilities through the 1980s, attributed to Shiites, led to a policy that has cut the percentage of Shiites in the company workforce by half.
"People hurt when they see the milk from the cow flowing to the center and the west, with only a little staying here," said Tayseer Khunaizi, a professor of finance at King Fahad University of Petroleum and Minerals in Dhahran. "Without the conquest of this region, the kingdom of bin Saud would never have survived. But deep inside of us, this is considered an occupation."
Saudi officials acknowledge that the Shiites, whom they rarely mention unless asked, are registering in higher numbers than voters in Riyadh did because they have more specific reasons to vote. Prince Mansour bin Mutaab bin Abdulaziz, a grandson of the founding king who was responsible for setting up the municipal elections, said, "In any society, the minorities are motivated."
"I don't like to use the words majority and minority," said the prince, a professor of public administration at King Saud University. "But I think minorities are more consolidated to have their opinions expressed through the vote."
Most of the neighborhoods in this city of 700,000 are tight and squalid, crisscrossed by dirt roads. Schools occupy apartment buildings, the result of government restrictions on school construction in Shiite neighborhoods. The community raised money for its own hospital, whose concrete walls are crumbling in places into small piles of rubble. The vegetable market shares space with a gas station.
Just outside town, where the concrete houses give way to shriveling groves of date palms, thick pipelines run like rails across the desert. The Ras Tanura refinery lies low on the hazy horizon, white storage tanks appearing like stones. Water wells have nearly run dry because, for years, groundwater has been pumped into depleted oil fields to stabilize them.
Mohammad Hassan, who works on a construction crew for the Saudi Telecommunications Co., recently peered into a well where several men were attempting to start a pump. Only a few feet of water stood at the bottom, cloudy and still. Hassan said his boss is Sunni, like every boss he has ever had. He wants the elections to bring him a chance to rise in the company or secure another job, as well as provide better civic services.
"We don't even have a real vegetable market," said Hassan, 40, a father of six. "I want my voice to carry to the government."