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Saudi Shi'ites mark Ashura festival in anxious mood

QATIF, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - Like their Shi’ite brethren across the Middle East, Hussein and his Saudi friends marked the mourning day of Ashura on Thursday, their mood tinged with worry over their future in the strict Sunni Muslim kingdom.

Hundreds of black-clad Shi’ites in the small Gulf town of Qatif, in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province, rose early to join once-forbidden processions to mark the slaying in 680 of Prophet Mohammad’s grandson, Imam Hussein.

Long viewed as heretics or even agents of Iran by the Saudi authorities and hardline Sunni clerics, Shi’ites have been testing pledges to let them practice their rites more freely. Now they fear a reversal in their long struggle for recognition.

The freedom to mark Ashura relatively unhindered in Qatif and nearby villages is a fruit of changes launched by King Abdullah since he ascended the throne in 2005.

But the king is about 87 and is in New York for medical treatment. His slightly younger half-brother, Crown Prince Sultan, spent the past two years abroad with an unspecified ailment. With a possible succession in prospect, many Shi’ites worry that a more conservative king might be tougher on them.

“Our future depends on whether we have a liberal or more conservative king,” said Hussein, who, like his friends, would only give his first name because the issue is so sensitive.

One future royal contender may be Prince Nayef, the interior minister. Nayef heads a vast security apparatus and is close to the Wahhabi clerics who uphold the kingdom’s austere brand of Sunni Islam.

He was promoted to second deputy prime minister last year, a post that puts him in charge if both Abdullah and Sultan are away.

“We’re afraid of Nayef,” said another young Shi’ite named Abdullah.

Jane Kinninmont at the Economist Intelligence Unit said such fears were widespread because Abdullah’s reforms often produced only shifts in the style of governing, not institutional changes. “As a result, there is a risk of reversals,” she said.


Tension erupted last year in Eastern Province after the fiery Shi’ite preacher Nimr al-Nimr suggested in a sermon 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.

While moderate Shi’ite leaders damped down protests after Nimr’s sermon, anti-government graffiti in neighboring Awwamiya denouncing the Wahhabi religious police shows that anger still lurks. Pictures of Shi’ites arrested in the protests adorn lamp-posts.

Officials say Shi’ites make up a 10th of Saudi Arabia’s 18 million nationals. Diplomats put their number nearer 15 percent.

While Shi’ites can practice their faith in Qatif, they say they would be arrested if they tried to do so in public in the neighboring communities of Dammam or Khobar.

“It’s totally different there. You cannot build Shi’ite mosques there,” said Muhammad al-Shuyoukh, a Shi’ite writer.

During the Ashura procession, many young men wore jeans, pullovers or shirts -- a subtle rejection of the white robe and headscarf mandatory in Saudi public offices and schools.

But they abstained from the bloody self-flagellation that is a feature of the rite in Shi’ite communities elsewhere.

Many Saudi Shi’ites slip over the border to Bahrain where Shi’ites are in the majority and Ashura is observed more openly. To avoid questions on their return, they remove or wash any clothing stained from bloodletting.

Dammam, a Saudi city with a large Shi’ite population, has just one mosque serving them. Authorities do not permit new ones, the U.S. State Department said in its annual International Religious Freedom report last month. It said at least nine Shi’ite places of worship had been closed in Khobar and Ahsa.


Shi’ite leaders who went into exile after the 1979 protests returned in the 1990s under a deal with the government. Moderate leaders say things are better than a decade ago, but that their community still has second-class status.

Despite being home to most of Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth, Eastern Province is visibly less affluent than the capital Riyadh, with paint crumbling from houses in Qatif.

The government denies charges of discrimination and says all citizens enjoy the same rights.

It has announced investments such as a new fish market for Qatif, but Shi’ites say their villages are underdeveloped and they are denied senior government or security service jobs.

“King Abdullah has certainly good intentions but many clerics and government officials mistrust Shi’ites,” said a Western diplomat in Riyadh. “To have a King Nayef is unthinkable for many Saudi Shi’ites.”

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, analysts say.

Leaked U.S. diplomatic cables quoted King Abdullah as urging Washington to attack Iran to destroy its nuclear program, and diplomats say Nayef also appears to be a hawk on Iran.

“I suspect the leaks did not necessarily reveal anything new to the Iranian regime itself, but the fact that it has been published will make it more difficult for the Saudis to improve relations with the Shi’ite community,” said Ghanem Nuseibeh, partner in strategy consultancy Cornerstone Global Associates.

Shi’ite leaders hope a recent visit to Qatif by the king’s daughter, Princess Adela bint Abdullah, will prove useful.

“Her visit will help the political elite to understand better the sources of public concerns here,” said Tawfiq al-Saif, a prominent Shi’ite intellectual in Qatif.

Editing by Andrew Hammond, Alistair Lyon and Kevin Liffey