QATIF, Saudi Arabia -- All but a few of the people who live in this old city on the Persian Gulf are Shiite Muslims, but in public schools the children often are told that Shiites are infidels bound for hell. Over the years, members of the faith have been imprisoned, flogged and held in solitary confinement for long stretches. Protests from international human rights groups go unheeded.
But in another sign that the war in Iraq could have consequences elsewhere in the region, the Shiite minority community of Saudi Arabia is hopeful that the liberation of their Iraqi brethren from the regime of Saddam Hussein could put significant pressure on the Saudi government to ease up as well.
Crown Prince Abdullah, Saudi Arabia's acting leader, met last week with a dozen Shiite leaders who presented a petition seeking equal political and religious rights. There are signals that the monarch may be prepared within the next year to consider naming the kingdom's first Shiite Cabinet minister — though the move is sure to set up a showdown with the powerful religious establishment that until now has given the Saudi royal family its very legitimacy.
The images last month of more than a million Shiites in the streets of Iraq for an annual celebration banned under Hussein was not lost on Saudi Arabia's 900,000 Shiites, who have rarely been allowed to conduct large, public religious displays in a country that sees itself as the center of Sunni Muslim orthodoxy.
While no one is predicting a revolution overnight in a kingdom almost defined by its resistance to change, many Shiites say the Iraqi experience may be opening the door to political reforms on this side of the border.
"What has happened there in Iraq, it will of course affect our country, our life, even affect people's thinking, and perhaps show the way for how to approach these goals in a peaceful way," said Mohammed Jabran, an influential Shiite businessman from near Qatif.
"I hope we can really learn something from the situation in Iraq," added A. A. Abdul Hai, a Shiite political science professor at King Saud University in Riyadh, the capital.
"But it's very hard," Hai added. "There remain in this country other groups that will benefit from not giving a minority their rights — fanatic, closed-minded persons. But in the end, it is the national good that would be served if the rightful and justified demands for equality materialized. It will help to stabilize the society and bring social peace and coexistence."
The problem is that Shiites, the majority of the population in neighboring Iraq, Iran and Bahrain, make up less than 10% of the population in Saudi Arabia. And while most Sunnis view them as fellow, though possibly misguided, Muslims, Shiites are regarded as infidels by the Saudi religious establishment, which adheres to the ultraconservative and austere variation of Sunni faith known as Wahhabism.
Saudi religious leaders see the Shiite veneration of saints and shrines, celebration of the prophet Muhammad's birthday and other rituals as sinful. One leader last year went so far as to call for religious war against Shiites, who split with Sunnis in the 7th century.
Yet there are signs that even the religious establishment may be ready to move. Last month, the nation's senior religious leader, Sheik Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah al Sheik, declared that charging other Muslims with disbelief — essentially, the official attitude toward Shiism until now — is not permitted under Islam.
"Charging other Muslims with whom one may differ as disbelievers results in murdering innocent people, destroying facilities, disorder and instability," said the revered, white-bearded mufti, whose word on religion is nearly as important as is the Saudi monarch's on secular policy.
In their meeting with the crown prince last week, Shiite leaders raised the issue of political participation for members of a minority group who traditionally have had very little. There has been only one Shiite ambassador, who served recently in Iran. There have been no Shiite Cabinet ministers, and few Shiites in the military or in influential jobs with government-owned industries.
There was no Shiite among several new Cabinet ministers named last week, but some Shiite leaders said they were not losing hope.
"If you ask me about the priority of assigning five ministers who are Shias or the government publicly announcing that Shias are Muslim, I'd take the second one," said Sadek Yaseen Ramadan, another Shiite businessman. "Or if the government said our citizens are full citizens of the country — I will take that instead of 10 ministers."
The potential for political turmoil in the Shiite community has been a source of concern for both the Saudi and U.S. governments, in part because the Shiites' numbers are concentrated in Eastern province, the petroleum belt overlying the biggest share of the world's oil reserves.
There have been occasional clashes between Shiite militants and Saudi authorities over the years, and U.S. prosecutors have alleged that Shiite extremists were responsible
for the 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers, an American military housing complex in the city of Dhahran, which killed 19 Americans and wounded hundreds.
Saudi officials know only too well that what happens in Iraq will almost certainly spill across the border. Violent clashes between Shiites and U.S. troops in Iraq
could inspire feelings of solidarity; a Shiite-led government there could fuel demands in Saudi Arabia for reform or even, as a few extremists have proposed over the years, outright separation.
Several Shiite religious leaders in Saudi Arabia are quietly advocating the establishment of a Shiite Islamic government in Iraq.
"Why is the U.S. opposing a Shiite state in Iraq? If the majority are Shia, and that's the way they select it, let them have it," said an influential Shiite leader in Qatif, who asked not to be identified. "If a Shia state takes place in Iraq, we can be assured there will be justice. It will be based on the religious teachings of the prophet, and after that, the Saudi Shia will be in a better situation."
The religious leader's comments came one recent afternoon during a meeting in his official reception room of six influential Saudi Shiites, none of whom would agree to be quoted by name. Three had served jail sentences and were ordered not to discuss their cases as a condition of release. The other three feared similar treatment if they spoke against the government.
One of them, formerly an outspoken activist, was picked up for investigation after the Khobar Towers bombing and, although never charged, was sentenced to six years in prison and 600 lashes. Another was sentenced to five years and 500 lashes for illegally traveling to Iran and Iraq.
"In the jail, they tell you, 'We can kill you and the world will not talk about you,' " said one of the former detainees.
"Al Qaeda people in the prison, they are allowed to do anything they want. They [Saudi authorities] treat them with full respect," said another. "For myself, I could not take a shower for four months."
One religious leader said he was held incommunicado for a month and tortured. "They threw me on my face with my hands tied behind my back to my feet," he said. "I was on my face and they just kept beating me. For nine months, my skin was black. After nine months, when I was released, my wife was crying when she saw what I looked like. I had to have surgery on my back. The skin on my ankles was gone."
Shiites say they face this kind of treatment because of extremists within the Wahhabi leadership, to whom the ruling Saud family has ceded control over most social and religious issues.
One Wahhabi text describes Shiites as "the worst ... [of the] misguided groups ... the ideas of the [Shiites] are like the ideas of the Jews." Another text outlines "painful truths and horrible facts" about the Shiite "deviation" and emphasizes that "there can be no reconciliation nor reunification of the Sunnis and the schismatic Shiites until and unless the latter renounce their perverse tenets."
Though the grand mufti's recent declaration seems to indicate this is not the mainstream clerical view in Saudi Arabia, the Wahhabi leadership has nonetheless sought to minimize the political influence of Shiites and has clearly backed such issues as restrictions on new Shiite mosques, banning publication or import of Shiite theological books, and banning Shiite teachings in the school curriculum.
"The problem is the Wahhabi curriculum and education system differentiates between religions and tells the children that you should kill other people when they are not Muslims," said one of the few Shiite school principals in Qatif. "They have told our children, 'You are heathens, you are infidels.' "
"Being called an infidel in Saudi Arabia is really serious," said Ramadan, the Shiite businessman. "Serious to the point that the safety of the individual is in question."
It can take years to get a permit to build a Shiite mosque, and whatever is built must look like a Sunni mosque on the outside and call the faithful to prayer in the Sunni style. In the religiously controlled court system, Shiites often are not allowed to act as witnesses.
"Here in Qatif we live in a Shia area, but even for very local positions in the Qatif municipality — the police chief, the head of education, the governor — all are Sunni," said Jafar Shayeb, who runs a communications business. "There is no law of any kind prohibiting discrimination. It is really terrible and frustrating, and it is facing you everywhere you go."
Some advocates of the petition presented to the crown prince say it is the government's responsibility to stand up to religious leaders and guarantee full political rights for Shiites. The situation in Iraq should make that easier, some say, because it has demonstrated that allowing the Shiites there to flex their muscles did not immediately turn them against the West, or even against former Baath Party members.
Even after the killing in Iraq of a senior Shiite leader last month, said Ramadan, there was no uprising or spate of revenge killings.
"If a revenge would have happened and a lot of bloodshed and killing, it would have caused a big collapse of the Shia community all over this area," he said. "But it was contained.... And this gives a good example for Saudi Arabia. If you give us our rights, we will just forget the past."