(Photos above and below: Saudi Shi’ite Muslims mark Ashura in Qatif, December 16, 2010/Zaki Ghawas)
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. “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.