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    Middle East
     Mar 17, 2005
Saudi's Shi'ites walk tightrope
By John R Bradley

Earlier this month, when Saudi Arabia's Shi'ites voted in the kingdom's oil-rich Eastern Province during the second of three phases of nationwide elections for municipal councils, Shi'ite candidates were returned in districts where there was a clear Shi'ite majority population. Where there was not, Sunni candidates, who had the semi-official backing of the Wahhabi religious establishment, were elected, just as their Wahhabi cousins in Riyadh had swept the board a few weeks earlier.

The more unexpected news was ignored by the Western media, namely that Hussein Abdul Rahman al-Khamis, one of the most popular Shi'ite candidates in the al-Hasa region, was disqualified from running just a day before polling day, the only candidate thus far in the two phases of elections to be removed from the list of those standing for office.

"I still don't know why I was excluded. People who were going to vote for me are also shocked," he told al-Jazeera TV on polling day, adding that the paper which announced his exclusion had no official stamp on it.

Why was al-Khamis so hastily excluded?

One reason could be that, unlike the other Shi'ite candidates in al-Hasa region, he lived in a Sunni-majority district. The electoral rules allowed voters to cast one vote for a candidate in their own district, but also another vote for a candidate in each of the other five districts of al-Hasa.

As the only Shi'ite candidate in his own district, al-Khamis would, by default, have attracted the majority of votes from the Shi'ites living in the other five districts. The result: a Shi'ite candidate in a landslide victory in a Sunni-majority district. The prospect, it seems, was simply too awful for the 24 Sunni candidates standing against him to contemplate.

Throughout the ruling al-Saud family's various victories and defeats and alignments and realignments with tribal chieftains, Bedouin clans and sedentary peoples over the past century, there has remained only one constant: outright hostility from the Wahhabis to the Shi'ite sect.

So the question everyone was asking, after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, was what would stop the Shi'ites of the Eastern Province, who have no obvious incentive to support the al-Saud regime that oppresses them and damns them as "infidels", from welcoming US forces if they rolled into the Eastern Province to "liberate" Saudi Arabia's oil fields?

After the fall of Baghdad, the image of more than a million Shi'ites on the streets of Iraq marking the Ashura commemoration for the first time in living memory was not lost on the kingdom's 900,000 Shi'ites, who have historic links with their co-religionists across the border.

Other, subtler historic tensions were also brought to the surface.

In 1802, Wahhabis supported by the al-Saud penetrated Karbala, the Shi'ite holy city in Iraq, and destroyed the mausoleum of Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet whose martyrdom Shi'ites commemorate during Ashura. With that attack on the tombs of Hussein and his followers, the al-Saud ruling family, and their Wahhabi backers, declared their open hostility to the Shi'ite sect.

After the fall of Saddam Hussein, three massive car bombs exploded in Karbala, killing hundreds and maiming many more. Locals instinctively blamed "Wahhabis", meaning Saudi jihadis who had sneaked across the border to join the insurgency. The majority of suicide bombings in Iraq have been carried out by Saudi jihadis, who are seeped in Wahhabi ideology. It was as though history was repeating itself. And in Ashura this year, the Shi'ite's worst fears were confirmed, after a car bomb in the Shi'ite city of Hilla killed 125. Again, locals marched to reiterate where they thought the blame lies: "No to terrorism" and "No to Ba'athism and Wahhabism" they shouted.

Deep loathing of Shi'ites, an ingrained habit of associating them with hostile external and internal powers, and fears among religious hardliners about the future position of Wahhabi clerics in a reformed Saudi political system that might grant Shi'ites their rights, all meanwhile continue to feed anti-Shi'ite sentiment inside Saudi Arabia itself. The exclusion of al-Khamis from the official list of candidates in al-Hasa was just another manifestation of that.

In a region obsessed with conspiracy theories, many Saudis, both Sunni and Shi'ite, think that Washington has plans to split off the Eastern Province into a separate entity, and seize control of the oil reserves after Iraq has stabilized. No amount of appeasement from the al-Saud is, in the meantime, going to pacify extremist Wahhabi elements - or, for that matter, the majority of the Shi'ites in the Eastern Province, who, not satisfied with token gestures, seem certain to exploit their ambiguous position when it comes to the issue of their loyalty to the Saudi state to push even more strongly for greater freedom and rights.

But the irony is that, as a result of the insurgency in Iraq and the suicide bombers routinely attacking Shi'ite civilians, the Saudi Shi'ites, rather than becoming more restless, may in fact see greater virtue in continuing to support the al-Saud regime.

The reason is that Iraq is proof of how, should the al-Saud be overthrown in a violent Islamic revolution led by al-Qaeda and inspired by Wahhabism, the Shi'ites are now more aware than ever that they will likely find themselves first in the firing line, at least after the al-Saud princes themselves have been done away with.

John R Bradley is the author of Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crisis. He has reported extensively from Saudi Arabia and the wider Middle East for many publications, including The Economist, The New Republic, Salon, The Independent, The London Telegraph, The Washington Times and Prospect. His website is www.johnrbradley.com.

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