Sectarian Tensions Rise In Persian Gulf Region

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In eastern Saudi Arabia, a Shiite cleric recently said the oil-rich province should secede from the kingdom if discrimination against Shiites continues. And just next door in the island nation of Bahrain, Shiites are protesting almost nightly against their Sunni rulers.


In Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, tensions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims are growing. Once Shiite cleric said the eastern part of Saudi Arabia should secede if discrimination against Shiites continues. Kelly McEvers reports.

KELLY MCEVERS: It's early morning in the Saudi village of Awamia(ph).

Unidentified Man: This is number one.

MCEVERS: This is the number one checkpoint?

Unidentified Man: Yeah.

MCEVERS: Already, police have set up checkpoints at all the roads that lead into town.

Unidentified Man: No, I meant another one.

MCEVERS: Another checkpoint?

Unidentified Man: Yeah.

MCEVERS: Checkpoint number two.

Police ask for IDs and search the trunks of every car. This crackdown started last month after Shiites clashed with Sunni religious police and their supporters in their holy city of Medina. The two sides disagreed over how Muslims should worship there. Shiites here in Awamia protested, were arrested, then released.

Sheikh MEMOR AL-NEMOR(ph): (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Then local Sheikh Memor al-Nemor suggested in this Friday sermon that the Shiite dominated eastern region of Saudi Arabia should secede from the country if discrimination against Shiites continues. Saudi police then moved into Awamia in search of the sheikh and arrested more Shiite men.

Mr. JAFRA ABDALLA AL-AJINAE(ph): Some soldiers enter in this house. (unintelligible) everything. After that, they hit this door. It was locked. And they push it…

MCEVERS: Wow, so there's a big hole in the door and the frame has been all ripped out.

Mr. AL-AJINAE: Yeah, and everything.

MCEVERS: Jafra Abdalla al-Ajinae says the only people at home when the police broke this door were his 14 year-old nephew, a housekeeper, and his grandmother.

Mr. AL-AJINAE: She was right there in the same place.

MCEVERS: Sitting on the floor in the kitchen with a tea pot, watching TV.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: The woman says her son came to ask police what was wrong. He was arrested on the spot, she says, even though he had committed any crime. In the wake of this unrest in Awamia, moderate Shiite leaders met with Saudi Arabia's powerful minister of interior this week. They warned that if steps aren't taken to free the imprisoned men, stop the crackdown on Awamia and address their larger concerns about discrimination, their people will continue to radicalize.

(Soundbite of radio broadcast)

Unidentified Woman #2: You're listening to radio (unintelligible).

MCEVERS: And the same is happening about an hour's drive from eastern Saudi Arabia in the Shiite villages of the island nation of Bahrain. The difference here is that Shiites actually form the majority of the population, but still, they're ruled by a Sunni elite. Almost every night, Shiites take to the streets and set fire to furniture, garbage and tires, protesting what they say is the same kind of discrimination Shiites face in Saudi Arabia: lack of access to jobs and housing, and the jailing of Shiites for what they say is nonviolent political activity.

There's a big fire up here. We're in the middle of a traffic jam. You can see the riot police, this huge plume of black smoke up above. It smells terrible. You can start to hear the sirens.

Most of the riot police aren't originally from Bahrain. Instead, they've been recruited from Sunni countries like Syria, Egypt and Jordan and given Bahraini passports. Shiites say this is the government's way of stacking the deck against them. But Sunni leaders like deputy minister of Parliament Ghanam Abu-Anine(ph) say Shiites can't be trusted to work in the security forces, especially now that they've taken to the streets.

Mr. GHANAM ABU-ANINE (Deputy Minister of Parliament): Unfortunately, this situation causing violence a lot, either on the property or in their reputation, whatever it is. I can assure you one thing, really, that this is not the general feeling of Shiites embody. But unfortunately, it seems that there is a practical agendas for somebody to apply their ideas in the street.

MCEVERS: That quote, "somebody," Abu-Anine is talking about is Shiite-dominated Iran. Here and in Saudi Arabia, Sunni leaders say Iran is using local Shiites to stir up trouble and assert its power, like it has in Lebanon and Iraq. Arab leaders all over the region fear that as the U.S. begins to negotiate with Iran, their concerns will be forgotten. The situation got even worse after an Iranian official recently declared that Bahrain once was part of Iran. Shiite activists here say in the past, they didn't imagine asking Iran for help in their struggle with the Sunni government, but now they say it might be something worth considering. As one activist put it to me, when a man has already lost everything, why should he care about the country around him? Why not just let it burn?

For NPR News, I'm Kelly McEvers, Manama, Bahrain.

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