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Long road to understanding for Saudi’s Shia
FT.COM - 3/03/2007 - 11:14 pm

Sheikh Jawad al-Jassim stands in the middle of a construction site and points skywards, surrounded by rusty scaffolding that contrasts starkly with his pristine clerical robes.

Radiating pride, he describes how two 51-metre-tall minarets and a 27m-high dome will dominate the horizon. Turning, he gestures to a rectangular structure taking shape and says it will be a lift to elevate women to the female section of the Imam al-Riza mosque, which will be equipped with all mod cons.

“Strength,” he says, describing what the mosque will mean to Saudi Arabia’s Shia minority.

The construction of another mosque in the devoutly religious kingdom, home to Islam’s two most important holy sites, may not seem unusual. But the Imam al-Riza mosque in the eastern town of al-Ahsa is set to become one of the largest Shia mosques in the predominantly Sunni state, Sheikh Jassim says.

This in a nation where the Shia have endured decades of discrimination: it took seven years for authorities to grant permission for the mosque, he says. The mosque is being constructed as concerns about Sunni-Shia tensions are fuelled by the bitter sectarian conflict in Iraq, the political crisis in Lebanon and the rising influence of Shia Iran.

But in Saudi Arabia, where there are estimated to be between 1.5m and 2m Shia, mainly inhabiting the oil-producing east, Shia leaders play down the notion of rising tensions.

Yes, suspicions exist, they say, and yes, tensions have increased with the political fallout in Lebanon following the war between Hizbollah, the Lebanese Shia movement, and Israel last July. They spiked again in the wake of Saddam Hussein’s execution at the hands of the Shia-dominated Iraqi government, as videos of the hanging circulated on mobile phones.

“But I think the issues are really exaggerated,” says Jafar al-Shayeb, a Shia political activist who heads the local council in Qatif, a predominantly Shia town. “It’s a bit like a cold war: there are rumours and suspicions on each other’s positions.”

Nearly a decade ago the building of a large Sunni mosque in the centre of Qatif – with government money – became a symbol of Shia humiliation.

But distrust between the two communities is centuries old, and some members of Saudi’s influential, ultraconservative Wahabi strain of Islam deem other Muslim sects as infidels and view the Shia with disdain. Two Wahabi clerics recently issued statements accusing the Shia of being heretics.

Yet Mr Shayeb and others say the regional sectarian divisions are now being driven by political struggles. Many – Sunni and Shia – accuse the US of stoking the tensions, to weaken and divide the Muslim world.

But for many Saudi Shia, the kingdom’s sectarian issues are an internal matter that needs to be addressed in the context of national reforms.

“It has to do with trust – are we trusted citizens or not?” says one prominent Shia. He and others dismiss accusations from some Sunni that the Shia community’s loyalty lies east, to Tehran, rather than Saudi Arabia, even if the Shia do look for religious guidance from ayatollahs in Iraq and Iran.

They list many complaints: restrictions on building social centres, the lack of a single Shia government minister, Shia not being appointed to senior civil service posts and the exclusion of the Shia from intelligence agencies and the royal guard.

Sunni questioning of Shia loyalty reached a peak in the wake of the 1979 Iranian revolution, when Saudi authorities cracked down on the Shia population, arresting leaders, banning the building of mosques and the publication and distribution of books. The reaction was in part provoked by the Shia attempting to use events in Iran to assert themselves.

The government eased the restrictions in the 1990s, and most say Shia relations within the kingdom have improved – if slowly – during King Abdullah’s reign.

There are even suggestions that the current sectarian debate could provide an opportunity for Saudis to readdress Sunni-Shia issues.

The prominent Shia, who does not want to be identified, says change needs to come from within the “establishment”.

“They themselves are getting the message: they see the misery of the sects going against each other, so it seems things will change,” he says.

But even such optimism is tempered by awareness that the Shia and Wahabi are at opposite poles. “If you talk about reconciliation, forget about it,” he says.

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