First came the Islamic revolution of 1979 in neighbouring Iran, whose ripples frightened those rulers and emboldened their Shia subjects, leading to ugly clashes that subsided only in the 1990s. The more recent rise of Shia influence in Iraq and the success of Hizbullah, the Shia party-cum-militia in Lebanon, have caused similar waves, made stronger by Iran's bid to become the dominant--and perhaps nuclear-armed--regional power.
Conditions for Shias vary among the Gulf monarchies but had until recently been broadly improving. In relaxed and relatively liberal Kuwait, where Shias account for a third of the ultra-rich citizenry, they have long been prominent in business and in government. Some hold high office in Bahrain, too, but proportionately far fewer than their two-thirds share of the island kingdom's population.
Saudi Arabia has the largest number of Shias at 2m-odd, but they are thinly diluted in a population ten times bigger and are subject to more systematic discrimination. No Shia has become a cabinet minister or general--or even a headmistress in a state school, reflecting the Saudis' severe Wahhabism, in effect the kingdom's official doctrine. Still, in recent years the Saudi government has loosened some strictures on Shia worship and forced extremist Sunni clerics to lessen their anti-Shia vitriol.
Those gains look fragile amid a mood of rising sectarian tension across the region. In Bahrain, months of agitation by Shias campaigning for greater rights have led to growing government fears of worse to come in the event of trouble with Iran. Pressure from Saudi-aligned Sunni radicals has led to a full-scale crackdown on Shia politicking. Widespread arrests, the closure of mainstream Shia websites and newspapers, and the banning of some Shia preachers from mosque pulpits have combined to tilt much of Shia opinion into sullen hostility to the state.
Many Bahrainis were shocked when a prominent Shia cleric, Ayatollah Hussein
Mirza Najati, was ordered to be stripped of his citizenship. By contrast,
Bahrain's Shias often complain that the government has secretly given
citizenship to thousands of foreign Sunnis in a bid to alter the sectarian
balance. Moderate Shias still counsel patience with the ruling al-Khalifa
family, whose promises of reform a decade ago had quelled unrest until now. But
clouds may be gathering ahead of a parliamentary election due next month.
More quietly, Saudi authorities have for months been harassing local Shia campaigners, arresting dozens and holding many for weeks at a time. A ban on fatwas by independent Sunni clerics has muted public attacks on Shias, but Sunni chat-sites on the internet still describe them menacingly as a fifth column for Iran.
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