Saudi Shi’ites have started staging small protests in the kingdom’s Eastern Province, the source of much of the Gulf Arab state’s oil wealth.
The top oil exporter and U.S. ally has so far avoided unrest like in Egypt or Tunisia but Shi’ite protests have made markets worried whether Saudi Arabia is insulated from larger anti-government demonstrations.
Saudi Arabia applies the Wahhabi austere version of Sunni Islam, and minority Shi’ites say that, while their situation has improved slightly under reforms launched by King Abdullah, they still face many restrictions and discrimination. The government denies these charges.
WHAT DO SAUDI SHI’ITES DEMAND?
Shi’ites have long complained of second class status in the absolute monarchy. They also want the release of Shi’ite prisoners, some of whom were arrested during previous protests.
Shi’ites, who make up to 15 percent of the 19 million Saudi population, say they are not represented in the cabinet, they struggle to land senior government and security jobs and are viewed as heretics or even agents of Iran by the Saudi authorities and hardline Sunni clerics.
Despite being home to most of Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth, the Eastern Province is less affluent than the capital Riyadh or other Saudi cities. The government has announced investments in the Shi’ite main Gulf coast stronghold of Qatif, but Shi’ites say their villages are underdeveloped and neglected.
Under reforms started by King Abdullah, Shi’ites say they can now practice their faith relatively freely in Qatif but want recognition and equal benefits enjoyed by Sunni counterparts.
In petitions and meeting with top officials, Shi’ites have demanded for years to open mosques and worship places outside Qatif. The port city of Dammam has only one Shi’ite mosque and nearby Khobar none despite many Shi’ites living there.
Authorities have closed at least nine places of worship in Khobar and the Ahsa region, the U.S. government said in a report in November. Shi’ite activists say authorities have signalled since protests started that places of worship in Khobar might be allowed but caution that similar promises were made in the past.
CAN SHI’ITES PROTESTS GET LARGER?
Since protests started in the Qatif area the marches have grown, drawing up to 200 each time and spreading to Hofuf, more than 100 kilometres south of Qatif.
Moderate Shi’ite leaders say they struggle to restrain frustrated young people emboldened by protests of their brethern against the Sunni Al Khalifa ruling family in nearby Bahrain.
“All the oil comes from here but we don’t benefit. We want jobs, housing,” shouted a young man at a protest in Qatif last week.
But the protests are still smaller and more peaceful than in 2009 when hundreds of Shi’ites clashed with police after firebrand preacher Nimr al-Nimr broke a taboo by suggesting that Shi’ites could one day seek their own state — a call heard only rarely since the 1979 Iranian revolution, which stirred unrest among Saudi Shi’ites.
Shi’ite leaders who went into exile after the 1979 protests returned in the 1990s under a deal with the government.
But Iran’s rising influence, especially since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, which empowered that country’s Shi’ite majority, has also revived official fears that Shi’ites could become a fifth column against the Saudi state.
Protesters this time have held up posters saying they do not want to overthrow the government.
Several Shi’ite leaders have signed petitions together with moderate Sunni activists across the country asking the king to hold elections in the absolute monarchy which has no elected parliament.
Many young Shi’ites say they back a general call by activists on Facebook to stage a “Day of Rage” across Saudi Arabia on Friday but it is unclear how many will respond as the government has warned that such protests are illegal.
WHAT ARE THE CHANCES OF PROTESTS AFFECTING OIL FACILITIES?
Many Shi’ites in the eastern province work in the oil industry, especially at state giant Saudi Aramco so they have no interest in disrupting oil flows and their livelihood. Their conditions are better than Shi’ites in Bahrain or Iraq as they still benefit from a welfare state though complain they get less than Sunnis. An estimated 10,000 Shi’ites study abroad on government grants.
HOW MANY SHI’ITES LIVE IN SAUDI ARABIA ?
There are no official figures. Government officials say less than 10 percent of Saudis are Shi’ites but human rights activists and diplomats put it up to 12-15 percent. Most Shi’ites live in the east near Bahrain, where Shi’ites challenge the Sunni government but there are also Shi’ites living in the holy city of Medina and some in Jeddah in western Saudi Arabia.
Shi’ites of the Ismaili sect are in the majority in Najran near the Yemen border, where no protests have been reported yet. Their community leaders say they face restrictions in getting senior state jobs but authorities have reached out more to them to win their loyalty in the volatile Yemen border region.