Minority Shi'ites make gains in Saudi elections

 

Shi'ite candidates triumphed in parts of eastern Saudi Arabia in the second round of the Muslim kingdom's elections to local councils, according to results published on yesterday.

Saudi Arabia's oil-rich Eastern Province is home to most of its marginalized minority Shi'ite community, estimated at around 10 percent of the total population, adding a sectarian edge to the first nationwide election in the predominantly Sunni kingdom.

The men-only elections, for just half the seats on municipal councils which will have limited power, are part of Saudi Arabia's modest political reforms. The absolute monarchy has come under strong US pressure to change after the September 11 attacks which were carried out by mainly Saudi hijackers.

Many Shi'ites complain of second class treatment in Saudi Arabia, whose rulers follow the austere Wahhabi school of Islam which has traditionally been hostile to them.

Despite sitting on the world's biggest oil reserves Shi'ites say their area gets far less investment than the capital Riyadh.

"Participation by the Shi'ites was very high. Our Sunni friends did not really take part as they were supposed to," said Mr Mohamad al-Jabran, a resident of Hofuf in al-Hasa region.

"I hope the people who won can provide benefits and services for the whole community -- not just Sunni or Shi'ite," he added.

Shi'ites swept the board in the Shi'ite town of Qatif and won five out of six seats in the mixed Sunni-Shi'ite area of al-Hasa. But in the urban centers of Dammam, Dhahran and Al-Khobar where a significant Shi'ite minority lives, Sunni candidates won with apparent backing from hardline clerics.

Victorious Qatif candidate Mr Jaafar al-Shayeb said the results of Thursday's election showed that the Shi'ite community wanted better services and "regulations and laws applied like everywhere else in the kingdom."

Voters in al-Hasa returned just one Sunni - his victory only secured after the disqualification of a Shi'ite rival who authorities said did not live in the district he stood in.