A rise in sectarian tensions and official jitters across the region
For minorities, success is best in small doses. Too much may stir bigotry and charges of dual loyalty, or even make some within the minority dangerously impatient for change. Shias on the Arab side of the Persian Gulf have long lived with such ironies. Largely ignored through centuries under Sunni rulers, they now feel increasingly exposed.First came the Islamic revolution of 1979 in neighbouring Iran, whose ripples frightened those rulers and emboldened their Shia Â 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 Iranâ€™s bid to become the dominantâ€”and perhaps nuclear-armedâ€”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 kingdomâ€™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 generalâ€”or even a headmistress in a state school, reflecting the Saudisâ€™ severe Wahhabism, in effect the kingdomâ€™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, Bahrainâ€™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.
Kuwaitâ€™s authorities have grown jittery, too. Following sustained pressure from Islamist Sunni members of parliament, the emirate revoked the Kuwaiti passport of Yasser al-Habib, a Shia preacher exiled in London, whose sermons suggesting that one of Muhammadâ€™s wives had poisoned the prophet prompted widespread outrage, including condemnation by fellow Shia clerics. Alarmed by a spate of calls for Sunni protests, Kuwaiti police have banned all public meetings.
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.