The Gulf: Shi'Ites: Poorer Cousins
On Sept. 30, 1988, shortly after Friday noon prayers, four young Shi'ite men were beheaded by royal decree in the Saudi town of Dammam. They had been convicted of blowing up fuel storage tanks at the Sadaf petrochemical facility in Jubail. The capture of the Shi'ites ended a six-month investigation that imposed virtual martial law around the coastal towns of Tarut and Qatif -- the strategic, oil-rich area of Saudi Arabia's Eastern province, where most of the country's 300,000 Shi'ites live.
The aftershocks from the Jubail blast and firestorm are still being felt. Fearful of sabotage, Saudi Aramco, the country's national oil company, has since refused to hire any new Shi'ite workers, who until recently made up 40% of its work force. The company has traditionally been the only major employer in the Eastern province willing to employ Shi'ites and thus has served as an important path of upward mobility. "Shi'ite leaders are trying to convince the powers that be that ((Jubail)) was the act of a few individuals," says a U.S. official. "Unfortunately, the whole community is paying the price."
The Shi'ites of Arabia's east coast have for decades met with cultural and religious intolerance from the dominant Wahhabi (Sunni fundamentalist) authorities. Among young Shi'ite men, the unemployment rate is 30%, and would be far higher but for Aramco.
The tiger of Shi'ite discontent first roared dangerously in 1979, when Shi'ites in Qatif defied local authorities during the holy period of Ashura. The ritual led to demonstrations that according to the Saudis ended only after the National Guard intervened, leaving 10 Shi'ites dead. According to U.S. sources, the denouement was even bloodier. "The National Guard is the core of the Wahhabi spirit," says a government analyst. "They take a certain pride in going down to the Eastern province and beating up Shi'a." Militants in Qatif responded by shooting 12 or 13 guardsmen; the guard sealed the area and killed more than 120 Shi'ites. Thousands more were arrested, some held for a year. In early 1980 violence flared again; 40 died, and later more than a dozen suspected ringleaders were beheaded.
The unrest led the Saudi government to begin a major public-works program in the Shi'ite region, which has always produced the lion's share of modern Saudi Arabia's oil wealth and received little in return. The situation further improved in 1985 when the brutal administration in the province of the bin Jaluwi family was replaced by Mohammed bin Fahd, a former businessman and a . son of the King. Still, Ashura continues to be a time when grievances surface: demonstrations were put down violently again in late 1985. Just last year scores of Shi'ites mourning the death of Khomeini were arrested and interrogated, some remaining in jail for nine months. "It is better now," concedes a Shi'ite. "But just a little." Says a Saudi official: "We think we can gradually bring the Shi'ites into the system, and it will be O.K."
Clandestine Iraqi radio broadcasts have recently begun calling on the Shi'ites to rise up -- so far, to no avail. "The Iraqis have very good intelligence," says one U.S. official. "They've already focused on the discrimination at Saudi Aramco." Says another official: "The Shi'a have a grievance, and if they are ignored, it will probably grow."
More News from Our Partners
KRIS ALLEN, winner of the 8th season of American Idol, rates Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez's judging abilities as the show premiered its 10th season on Wednesday
Stay Connected with TIME.com