Tuesday 29 January
By Michael Glackin
In 2005 thousands of Shias in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia queued from dawn outside polling stations to vote in the kingdom's historic local elections. Women were not allowed to vote of course, and only half the members of local councils were actually elected with the remainder appointed by the government. But despite this, those who stood in the early morning light waiting for the polling booths to open - and inspired in part by the sight of Iraqi Shias braving bomb attacks to vote in their own elections - hoped it would mark the first tentative step towards ending years of inequality and discrimination.
Unfortunately, as so often in the Middle East , it proved a false dawn. The local councils turned out to be more impotent than even cynics predicted and talk of Shias using the authority of elected office to push for equal rights is no longer heard. Indeed two years on from the elections the plight of Shias in Saudi Arabia has in some respects worsened.
Jafar Al Shayeb, a Shia politician who was successfully elected chairman of the local council in Qatif, a predominately Shia city, admits the councils have failed to be the catalyst for change that Shias had hoped for. "It's true," he says. "The municipal council has very little authority regarding local community issues, especially religious and political ones. Shia community issues are far beyond the council."
Al Shayeb lived in exile for many years. He returned to the kingdom in 1993, when King Fahd relaxed some of the restrictions imposed on Shias in exchange for their ending active opposition to the regime from abroad. He believes some things have improved since his return, albeit due to benevolence from above rather than political power from below, but concedes the situation is far from perfect.
"Many types of harassment still take place" he explains. "Such as being held in prison for holding some religious ceremonies, distributing religious books and building religious places without a permit, which is hardly ever granted."
Discrimination has long been a fact of life for the Saudi Shia. They are prevented from building mosques, kept out of the upper ranks of the army and the security services, and deprived of senior jobs in the bureaucracy. Things are even worse for the much smaller Ismaili Shia community that inhabits the south of the kingdom where last year a judge annulled a marriage on the basis that the husband was "inadequate" because he followed the Ismaili creed and not the Wahhabi creed of his wife.
Shia are estimated to comprise between 1.5 to 2 million of a population of around 25 million, but form the majority in the kingdom's eastern province, the strategically sensitive heartland of Saudi Arabia's oil wealth. Despite a government policy to move Sunnis into the region, Shias remain the majority in large cities such as Qatif and are at least a sizeable minority in others such as Dhahram, home to Saudi Aramco, and Al-ahsa.
"The Saudi government has encouraged Sunnis to move to the eastern province by giving them jobs while qualified Shias were denied," says Ali Al Ahmed, a Shia from the eastern province and director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs, a Washington based think tank. "There is a real sense today that Shia are under occupation and the situation is getting worse."
Al Ahmed's view is confirmed by humanitarian groups active in the region. "There were signs of improvement in treatment of the Shia a year or so ago," says Human Rights Watch Middle East specialist Christoph Wilcke. "But within the last 10 months we have seen signs of regression."
The long standing emnity between Saudi Arabia's dominant Wahhabi creed of Sunni Islam, which views all Shia as heretics, reached its apogee following the Iranian revolution in 1979 and the establishment of Aytollah Khomeini's Shia theocracy. Emboldened by events in Iran, Shias in the eastern province rioted precipitating a crackdown by Saudi authorities that left at least a dozen people dead and many more in gaol. The crackdown also resulted in a ban on the publication and distribution of Shia books and an increase in day to day harassment of Shias by police.
Many of the restrictions were later eased, most notably King Abdullah's decision while he was crown prince to allow Shias to observe the Ashura holiday, but the re-emergence of Iran as a regional power – not to mention its nuclear ambitions - combined with a Shia led government in Iraq has intensified Sunni suspicions that the kingdom's Shias are fifth columists for outside forces who desire to annex the kingdom's oil wealth. These tensions were exacerbated further by the 2006 war between Lebanon's Shia militia Hizbullah and Israel and the filmed images of Iraqi Shias joyfully carrying out the execution of Saddam Hussein.
"Following Saadam's hanging, two senior Saudi clerics [Abdullah Bin Jebreen and Abdul Rahman al Barak] issued fatwas on the entire Shia population," says Wilcke. "And now Shias who are found during police stop and search checks with photographs of Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah on their mobile phones are arrested. The same thing happens to anyone who displays pro Nasrallah stickers on their cars."
Despite such incidents, Al Shayeb believes improvements remain possible by working through what passes for Saudi Arabia's political institutions. He believes the Majlis al-Shura, the 150 strong all male all appointed consultative council that advises the king and in some cases can initiate legislation is becoming increasingly proactive.
In addition King Abdullah’s announcement last year that he intends to create a supreme court, an appeals court and new general courts to replace the Supreme Judicial Council represents a substantial curb on the hitherto unchecked powers of the conservative clerics who lead the judiciary.
And a couple of months ago al Shayeb's council succeeded in overturning a law which restricted the size of basements in Shia homes in Qatif, a law designed to prevent basements being used for Shia prayer meetings.
It remains the council's sole success.
Another visible sign of change is the construction of the large Shia mosque in Al-ahsa .
But Al Ahmed disagrees. "Yes Shias have opened a Mosque in Al-ahsa but they are still discriminated against elsewhere. Saudi Arabia does not have one Shia diplomat in the ministry of foreign affairs. There are no Shia heads of universities or at the head of public companies. Shia girls cannot get into college in the east. What are the consultative and local councils doing about these things? Nothing because they are powerless."
Nowhere is this discrimination more evident says Al Ahmed than in the hiring and promotion of staff at Saudi Aramco, the giant national oil company headquartered in Dhahran, just south of Qatif. Saudi Aramco has consistently denied such charges.
"Shias traditionally worked in senior positions in Saudi Aramco," says Al Ahmed. "But during the 1980s the government suspended the hiring of Shia workers and that lasted until the mid nineties except in very rare cases. It is better now, Shias now account for around 50 per cent of Saudi Aramco's work force, but there are still no Shias at board level."
Saudi Aramco would not specify how many Shias it employed in senior positions but a spokesperson insisted: "Hiring and personnel policy is to seek the best person for any given position, while giving preference to Saudi nationals. Therefore, Saudis of all backgrounds are represented throughout the company, from new hires to executives."
He added: “"Our information systems aren't geared for tracking information like an employee's sect. Saudi Aramco is a global commercial enterprise, and promotions are based on merit alone."
Of course, dread of the so called "Shia crescent" stretching from Iraq through Iran to Lebanon is particularly keenly felt in the oil rich east where fear of attacks on installations, home to 90 per cent of the kingdom's black gold, has seen a huge increase in security around oil facilities.
Yet Shia hardly share uniform political interests. Iraqi Shias, who owe their new found status entirely to American military power, are no lovers of Lebanon's fervently anti American Hizbullah. At the same time, Iran is involved in a bitter dispute with the predominantly Shia government of Azerbaijan over oil rights in the Caspian Sea which has seen one high ranking Tehran official ominously warn Iran may have to "reclaim" northern Azerbaijan, an area that formed part of the Persian Empire two centuries ago.
But such subtleties are lost in the cauldron of Saudi Arabian politics where King Abdullah must balance even snail pace reform with the Wahhabi religious base on whom the House of Saud relies for its legitimacy.
And for all Al Shayeb's optimism things could still get worse.
Many younger Shias, emboldened by the success of Nasrallah and Hizbullah's "divine victory" during Israel’s hapless but bloody invasion in 2006 and are no longer content to hang around waiting for the change al Shayeb is convinced will eventually come.
"Younger Shias are mesmerised by Nasrallah," explains Al Ahmed. "It is he and Hizbullah, and to a lesser extent Iran, that young Shias in Saudi Arabia see as a model. It is a disturbing development."
While both Wilcke and Al Shayeb play down the notion of a more militant youth, there is a very real fear that violence between Shias and Sunnis in Iraq will spill over into Saudi Arabia, as battle hardened Saudi Sunni militants currently causing mayhem there return home.
This is part of the reason why the fate of Shia in Saudi Arabia is likely to depend in large part on events in Iraq and of course what happens in the current stand off between the US and Iran as much as events within the kingdom.
Against this backdrop is it realistic that councils such as the one in Qatif where Shia representatives control 50 per cent of the seats - more than in Al-asha and other eastern cities where the figure is 40 per cent or less - have any meaningful role to play in determining the future?
Although the councils have no real political power, they do at least provide a public forum in the eastern province that enables Shia men, who for all the shortcomings of the process are accountable to the narrow electorate that voted for them, to discuss the problems Shia face with Sunnis who live alongside them. Moreover, even Al Ahmed agrees the councils provide a useful role in giving Shias experience of how government administration works. "Through the councils, despite their weakness, you can educate and train people in government and that is a good thing," he says.
But power that emanates from above can easily be taken away again. And the fear remains that even the current begrudging reform process could be abandoned as US pressure on the House of Saud to liberalize recedes in the wake of the continuing bloodbath the attempt to establish democracy has caused in Iraq.
This is particularly pertinent against the backdrop of the fractious succession process that exists within the House of Saud. While 82 year old Abdullah's successor will be the octogenarian Crown Prince Sultan, contrary to custom there is currently no designated second in line to the throne, a deliberate oversight due to rivalry within the family. The choice of a successor to Sultan, should he succeed Abdullah, will be left to the so called Allegiance Institution, the committee established by Abdullah last year, composed of the sons and grandsons of the kingdom's founder Abdul Aziz.
Under the new rules the committee can vote for one of three princes nominated by the King for the post of Crown Prince. However, if it rejects the King's nominations it can put forward its own choice which the King can either accept or put to a vote of the Allegiance Institution.
In many ways the Allegiance Institution formalizes what has traditionally occurred anyway, but it has given rise to much political intrigue and jockeying for position within the House of Saud, particularly among those who want power to pass to the next generation, Abdul Aziz's grandsons.
"The House of Saud is not united," says Al Ahmed. "And if the family is not united about the succession the situation for Shias, indeed for the whole country, could become very fluid. A lurch back to repression could easily happen."
But Al Shayeb insists the fledlging reforms undertaken in Saudi Arabia are permanent and will improve life in the kingdom for not just Saudi Arabian Shias but for all Saudi Arabians. He says: "I remain optimistic about the future. I feel the Shia community and the government understand each other in a better way now. They both want to work to bridge the gap created by long years of tension."
Time will tell whether his optimism is well founded, or whether like those who stood in the dawn two years ago, he will be disappointed.
Michael Glackin is a journalist and former managing editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star.