Saudi police arrest 11 Shi'ites after clashes


Saudi police have arrested at least 11 Shi'ites in eastern Saudi Arabia after a firebrand preacher attacked the Sunni authorities over recent sectarian clashes, police and Shi'ite sources said today.

Tewfik al-Saif, an intellectual from the Eastern Province, said a total of 14 Shi'ites were arrested in Awwamiyya during several days of sit-ins in protest against police raids in search of preacher Nimr al-Nimr, who has gone missing.

Shi'ite website also reported the arrests.

Interior ministry spokesman Mansour al-Turki confirmed that 11 men were detained on Saturday on suspicion of "disturbing public order" and an act of vandalism that caused an electricity black-out in the Shi'ite town of Awwamiyya.

He said police wanted Nimr for questioning but did not know for what reason.

Mr Saif and a member of Nimr's family said that in a sermon in Awwamiyya this month Nimr had suggested Shi'ites could one day seek to secede from Saudi Arabia, a country that sees itself as the bastion of mainstream Sunni Islam.

Most Saudi Shi'ites live in the eastern, oil-producing part of the country. They are thought to form 10 to 15 per cent of the population of 17 million Saudis, and often complain of second-class status in the kingdom.

An apparent voice recording of Nimr's sermon has been posted on the website YouTube. The sermon refers to clashes last month in the holy city of Medina in the west of Saudi Arabia, a vast desert state that is the world's largest oil exporter.

Saudi authorities arrested 18 Shi'ites in Medina for disturbing public order, while Shi'ites said the kingdom's morals police had prevented them from practising their rites. King Abdullah ordered the men released earlier this month.

Morals police often prevent pilgrims venerating tombs, seen as idolatry under the strict Saudi version of Islam.

Sectarian tension has risen in the Middle East in recent years as Shi'ites, with the backing of non-Arab Shi'ite power Iran, have grown in influence in Iraq and Lebanon.

A Western diplomat in Riyadh said the cleric's language was a sign of those rising tensions. "The last time (Saudi) Shi'ites spoke openly of secession was in 1979 after the revolution in Iran. It's remarkably rare and provocative," he said.