March 2, 2005


Saudi Shiites Look to Iraq and Assert Rights (NEIL MacFARQUHAR, 3/02/05, NY Times)

Saudi Arabia's religious establishment, which is dominated by the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam, still damns such rites [as Ashura] as pagan orgies. But the fact that Shiites, at least in this city, their main center, no longer feel the need to hide reflects a combination of important changes here and elsewhere in the Middle East.

The most important include the emergence of an elected Shiite majority government next door in Iraq, the campaign for municipal elections here in the country's first nationwide polls and a relaxation in some of the discrimination that Shiites have long faced in the kingdom.

The limited municipal council elections scheduled throughout eastern Saudi Arabia are expected to earn Shiite candidates all five seats up for grabs in Qatif, an urban area of 900,000 on the Persian Gulf.

In a sight startling for Saudi Arabia, Sheik Hassan al-Saffar, a dissident Shiite cleric who has been jailed and spent the 15 years before 1995 in exile, spoke for an hour in one candidate's campaign tent on the first big night of electioneering. Even limited elections are important, he said, "because they ignited in people's minds the spark of thinking about their interests and aspirations."

Sheik Saffar also drew parallels to Iraq, saying voting was the least Saudis could do, considering the risks their brethren had taken next door to exercise this new freedom. He took great pains to say it was a question for all Saudis, not Shiites alone.

The kingdom's two million Shiites, most living in the Eastern Province, constitute about 10 to 15 percent of the native Saudi population.

And the Shi'a shall lead....

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 2, 2005 4:50 PM
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