The conflict in Iraq has begun to spill over onto this hardscrabble, sunburned swath of coast, breathing new life into the ancient rivalry between the country’s powerful Sunni Muslim majority and the long-oppressed Shiite minority in one of the most oil-rich areas of the world.
“Saudi Sunnis are defending Iraqi Sunnis, and Saudi Shiites are defending Iraqi Shiites,” said Hassan Saffar, Saudi Arabia’s most influential Shiite cleric. “There’s a fear that it will cause a struggle here.”
At first, the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq gave optimism to Shiites here along Saudi Arabia’s eastern coast. Unlike infuriated Sunnis, many Shiites felt a surge of quiet hope when the U.S. arrived in Iraq three years ago. Emboldened by their Iraqi brethren’s escape from the oppressive rule of Saddam Hussein, Shiites here and in other Sunni-ruled nations began to demand -- and win -- freedoms of their own.
Bit by bit, old rules have fallen away in recent years: Saudi Shiites won the right to publish and read sectarian literature. They can now work as journalists, build mosques and open Shiite schools to educate their sons.
But today, the power shift that seemed to be opening doors for the sect is beginning to look more like a dangerous destabilization. Some Shiite clerics here have received death threats in recent months, community leaders say. Shiites have also been accused of harboring links to Iran, a longtime nemesis of the Saudi government.
Sunni and Shiite clerics across the region have begun to warn against a fitna, a severe term that refers to a civil war or division within the Islamic faith.
“Now there’s a psychological war against the Shia,” said Mohammed Mahfoodh, a Shiite author here. “They criticize the Shia, accuse them of being loyal to an outside party, attack their religious beliefs and say they don’t have interest in the stability of their countries.”
Saudi Shiites have lived for centuries among the banana and date palm groves where the kingdom tapers off into the Persian Gulf, pushed literally and figuratively to the margins of Saudi Arabia. Unwittingly, they settled directly on top of the fossils that became the source of Saudi opulence: vast oil reserves that spread out beneath their villages.
Far from the skyscrapers glinting in the sun in Riyadh and Jidda, this is a very different Saudi Arabia, a place where villagers still live in mud-brick huts, where pictures of Hezbollah chief Sheik Hassan Nasrallah and Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani are plastered on walls, where roads go unpaved and old wells pock the desert.
There are times when you can literally smell the gas, sitting like a vapor over the sands. The people of Qatif sometimes joke that the cow is here, but the milk goes elsewhere.
“Look at all the treasures in this area, look at the oil. Qatif should be rich,” said Aliya Fareed, a Shiite and member of the fledgling National Society for Human Rights.
“But we can’t see Qatif as a rich area,” Fareed said. “Look at our schools, look at our homes.
“Our young people don’t have jobs,” she said, and in the 21st century “we’re living in houses of mud.”
Shiites have a long list of grievances in Qatif. They need roads and job opportunities. They remain underrepresented on the governing councils, which are handpicked by the royal family, and are excluded from military and diplomatic positions. Sunnis commute from out of town to run offices as mundane as that of traffic police.
“We don’t feel like we’re full partners in the nation,” Mahfoodh said.
In a land where the seeds of centuries-old discord were first sown among the followers of the prophet Muhammad, animosities between Sunni and Shiite Muslims are never far from the surface.
Today, the Shiites of the east are mounting an unprecedented push for civil rights and equality, even as they find themselves increasingly tarred as traitors more loyal to Iran than to the kingdom they call home.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak angered the region’s Shiites this month when he told a reporter from the satellite news channel Al Arabiya that Shiites throughout the Arab world had deeper loyalties to Iran than to their home countries.
Mubarak was broadcasting a belief that is widely held among Sunni Arabs. Here in Saudi Arabia, many Sunnis say privately that Mubarak was correct about Shiite loyalty -- but that he probably shouldn’t have said it publicly.
“Everybody believes that Shiite Muslims are loyal to Iran more than to their own countries, but you don’t say it,” said Turki Hamad, a liberal Sunni Saudi. “I’d say 90% of the people in Saudi Arabia don’t trust the Shiites. You can’t just shake a magic stick and get rid of it.”
The question of loyalty is a blurry one. A long legacy of shoddy treatment has left many Shiites nursing quiet grudges against their governments. Shiite political leaders generally know better than to advertise anti-government sentiments at a time when they’re pushing for equality, but the animosity often lurks just below the surface.
“I was born in Qatif and I hope to die in Qatif -- it’s my land,” said Ali Maidani, 33, a Shiite. He paused, then corrected himself. “All of Saudi Arabia is my land, but the government doesn’t treat me like a citizen. So sometimes I feel that only Qatif is my land.
“It’s not good for the government,” he said. “That’s why people start to follow other regimes.”
Some of the accusations of disloyalty involve the Shiite religious hierarchy. Shiite worshipers follow the guidance of a clerical “source.” Most of the Arab world’s Shiites, including those in Saudi Arabia, look to Sistani as their spiritual leader; others look to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Iran.
Shiites point out that this is a religious allegiance and often say angrily that it has nothing to do with politics. But the dividing line is not firm; religion and politics often meld.
For example, in neighboring Bahrain, a restive Shiite majority is pushing to have marriage, divorce and custody laws approved not by parliament but by Sistani. Sunnis are outraged at the idea; they regard it as an insult to national sovereignty.
Shiites “want the power in their hands and only their hands,” said Adel Mawda, a Sunni legislator in Bahrain’s parliament. “How can a country put in its constitution that we send our law to another country?”
Shiites in Bahrain and here have eagerly latched on to any democratic opening. In Bahrain, Shiite-led groups have staged some of the largest street demonstrations in the Arab world, shutting down highways and chanting protests against the government, which is controlled by Sunnis.
As for Qatif, its long-marginalized province voted more heavily than the rest of the country last year when Saudi men were allowed to cast ballots in limited municipal elections.
About 43% of eligible voters went to the polls here -- more than in any other district in the country.
“The society felt like this was their opportunity to express their existence,” said Jaafar Shayeb, a Shiite leader and onetime political exile who was elected to the municipal council in Qatif. “Now you feel they’re ready and willing to participate at any opportunity.”
Sunni-Shiite understanding has been deepened in recent years by the “national dialogue” -- the royal family’s project of arranging face-to-face conferences of Saudis of different backgrounds. The talks have drawn Shiite and Sunni clerics from around the country to discuss its future.
“It used to be a closed, black box. They didn’t know what are the Shia, what do they want,” Shayeb said. “We don’t want to overthrow the government. We want equality as citizens.”