Counter-Terrorism: Saudis Seek Solution To The Shia Schism

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March 27, 2012:  On March 21st Saudi Arabian police were fired on in the Eastern Province. Three policemen were wounded, and others returned fire, causing the unknown gunmen to flee. This is part of growing violence by the Shia minority against the Sunni Arabs that rule Saudi Arabia.

Two months ago there was a similar incident where the police opened fire on a Shia religious procession, killing one person and wounding three. The public Shia religious procession was forbidden, and local Shia blamed the police for using violence to try to shut down this "heretical" (according to the dominant Sunni clergy) religious activity. Armed Shia returned fire, at least according to Shia witnesses. The official line is that the Shia started it.

There has been an increase in Shia demonstrations and public Shia religious activity in the last year. This is largely because the Shia majority in neighboring Bahrain has been protesting against their Sunni rulers. In response to the unrest in the Eastern Province, police have arrested over 600 Shia and many of them are still in prison. In January the Saudi government published a list of 23 Shia men wanted for being leaders of the unrest. Since then, most of the men on that list have been arrested.

Sunni Arab governments blame Iran for instigating the Shia Arab minority unrest in Saudi Arabia and the Shia Arab majority rebellion in Bahrain. But there has been no hard evidence of Iranian instigation and lots of obvious reasons for Shia unrest. For one thing, Sunni Islamic conservatives have long preached openly against Shia Moslems, calling them heretics and worse. The Saudi government prevents the Sunni fanatics from acting on these beliefs but does not prohibit the preaching. At the same time open expression of Shia religious practices are forbidden, as is the open practice of any non-Moslem religion in Saudi Arabia. Shia are allowed to have their own mosques, while non-Moslems are forced to pray at home. There has always been tension between Shia and Sunni throughout the Moslem world.

In Bahrain a Sunni Arab minority has long ruled a Shia Arab majority and this sort of thing is never popular. While the anti-Shia attitude is not nearly as prominent in Bahrain, it is still there. All Iranian media, which can be picked up by Shia in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, has to do is repeat the Shia side of this ancient conflict. Iran, the largest Shia nation on the planet, also believes that Shia Moslems should be the guardians of Mecca and Medina (the most sacred Islamic shrines, which the Saud family and earlier Sunni clans have guarded for centuries). It's this Shia-Sunni feud and Iran's historical role as regional superpower that frightens the Sunni Arab rulers of Arabia.

The Saudis are offering the Shia more economic benefits but this is not eliminating the unrest. The Shia complain of being second-class citizens in Saudi Arabia. There are about three million Shia in Saudi Arabia (out of a population of 28 million), most of them in the Eastern Province (where most of the oil is). The Shia are not a large enough minority to threaten Sunni rule in Saudi Arabia, but with Iran threatening to invade, the Saudis want to placate these potential Iranian allies. The Saudi Shia are not automatically pro-Iranian. That's because Iranians are not Arab (they are Indo-European, distant ethnic cousins of Europeans, Kurds, Afghans, Pakistanis, and Indians). Iran has never had a high opinion of Arabs, not even the two percent of Iranians who are Arab.

 


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