Leaders of Saudi Arabia's Shi'ite Muslim minority handed over a petition to de facto ruler Crown Prince Abdullah last month demanding a greater say in the affairs of the Sunni-ruled kingdom. It came just after authorities announced an investigation into a number of Shi'ite mosques in the Eastern Province set ablaze in apparent arson attacks.
Shi'ites have long complained of discrimination in Saudi Arabia, whose rulers are closely watching the resurgence of the Shi'ite majority in neighbouring Iraq after the US-led invasion toppled Sunni President Saddam Hussein. They allege that the strict Saudi religious establishment has insulted their faith in school textbooks, prevented Shi'ite communities from building mosques and denied them senior government jobs and access to the state media.
Most Saudis belong to the austere Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam, but Saudi officials have repeatedly denied that Shi'ites are in any way discriminated against. The petition also seeks the right for Shi'ites to be referred to their own religious courts. Sunni courts do not recognise testimonies by Shi'ites, whom hard-liners consider "infidels".
Shi'ite activist Jaffar Al-Shayeb, who led the 18-member delegation that met with Prince Abdullah and co-authored the petition, told Al-Ahram Weekly that it was signed by 450 Shi'ite academics, businessmen, writers and women, "who have raised their voices in unison to demand reform".
The 30-minute meeting, he said, focussed on the "constant trouble the Shi'ites face in Saudi Arabia". Prince Abdullah encouraged an "open and frank" discussion, Al-Shayeb said.
The petition -- a copy of which has been seen by the Weekly -- asks for the kingdom to accept all Islamic sects, and for there to be a group or body that represents the Shi'ites to push for equal opportunities, especially in the areas of education and employment. The petition further asks for the annulment of laws that prohibit the formation of lobby groups, such as those that would promote the rights of Shi'ites. It also demands the introduction of new laws that would both protect individual rights and combat all kinds of religious discrimination.
"We went over the problems we are facing and Prince Abdullah suggested a government- sponsored religious forum to be set up so the Sunnis and Shi'ites in Saudi Arabia can better understand one another," said Al-Shayeb.
Saddam's fall has raised the possibility of Shi'ites gaining ascendancy in Iraq, and Saudi Shi'ites traditionally have strong links across the border. A leading Saudi Shi'ite cleric said last month that Shi'ites here hope the defeat of Saddam would help their cause in the kingdom, the birthplace of Islam.
However, Al-Shayeb dismissed suggestions that the Shi'ite community in Saudi Arabia has a common agenda with outside groups. "We have no alliance with anyone outside the country, and indeed want to resolve this issue so that it doesn't leave any space for outsiders to exploit," he told the Weekly.
"This petition goes hand in hand with the reformist document also submitted to Prince Abdullah earlier this year," he added, referring to a group of Saudi intellectuals who called for elections, freedom of speech and other reforms. Like the earlier petition, the latest is couched carefully in the language of national unity and the ultimate legitimacy of the ruling Al-Saud family.
Shi'ites form about 10 per cent of the Saudi population, but are thought to form a majority in the Eastern Province, where most of the oil lies. During the week after the petition was presented, three Shi'ite places of worship in Tarut Island, in the Eastern Province, were torched by unknown assailants. The historical Prophet Al-Khoder Mosque was the first to be torched on 4 May, and on 6 May the Sheikh Alaa Mosque and Al-Saif Hussainya were torched, according to a statement released by the Saudi Institute, a Washington-based Shi'ite opposition group. A local who spoke to the Saudi Institute reported that the fires were started after gasoline had been poured on the doors and windows of the mosques.
The Saudi Institute has received other reports of sectarian strife. Four Shi'ite students from Al-Qudaih were permanently expelled from Jubail Industrial College, also in the Eastern Province, following a fight with several Sunni students who reportedly assaulted them and attacked their Shi'ite religious practices. The institute also claims a Shi'ite cemetery in Anaak was desecrated two months ago by unknown perpetrators.