When Saudi Shi’ites mark the birthday of the Prophet Mohammad, meeting at mosques and exchanging sweets is only part of what’s going on. The Shi’ites also are testing the tolerance of Sunni clerics and taking advantage of reforms introduced by King Abdullah that allow them greater freedom to practise their branch of Islamic faith.
For the hundreds of Shi’ites who gathered on Sunday in the rundown eastern town of Awwamiya, near the Gulf coast, this year is special. Just an hour’s drive and a bridge away is the island nation of Bahrain, usually a place where Saudis go for a bit of weekend fun but now the scene of a majority Shi’ite uprising that is challenging the minority Sunnis’ grip on power.
“You need to demand reforms and start popular movements if you want to achieve something. If you don’t do anything the government will not act,” said Mohammed, a young man who, like others, gave only his first name.
“You need to make use of the fact that the regime is in a weak position,” he said, referring to anti-government protests sweeping across the Arab world after popular uprisings toppled the rulers of Tunisia and Egypt.