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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.

The minarets of a huge government-funded Sunni mosque loom over the old center of Qatif. A nearby Shiite mosque is a jumble of tin, wood and masonry. (Photos Scott Wilson -- The Washington Post)

"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.

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