Wed, Jul 02, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Saudi Arabia reaches out to its religious minorities

The kingdom hopes talks with religious groups and former dissidents will curb militancy and ease concerns about unequal treatment

By Dominic Evans  /  REUTERS , RIYADH

Jolted by bombings in its capital and a shootout with militants in Mecca, Saudi Arabia is trying to heal internal rifts and tackle the threat of al-Qaeda by talking to religious minorities and former dissidents.

Alongside a sustained security clampdown after the suicide bombings in Riyadh, blamed on Saudi-born Osama bin Laden's group, de facto ruler Crown Prince Abdullah launched a "national dialogue" to address political and religious differences.

A four-day meeting last week brought together Sunnis and minority Shiites -- who have long complained of second-class treatment in the strict Sunni Muslim kingdom -- as well as government figures and a former dissident who was once jailed.

"It was the first meeting of its kind and we consider it a good, and belated, initiative," the country's most prominent Shiite cleric Hassan al-Saffar, a former exile, said. "This should have happened a long time ago."

Shiites, who live mainly in the oil-rich Eastern Province, make up nearly 10 percent of the population in Saudi Arabia, which enforces an austere Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam.

They have complained for decades of inequality at the hands of a powerful religious establishment, saying it refused to acknowledge Shiites as true Muslims.

Saudi Arabia's Ismaili Muslims, from the southwestern border region near Yemen, were also represented at the talks.

"The most important result of the meeting was breaking the barriers between the different [religious] trends," Saffar said, adding that differences would not be resolved overnight.

Diplomats say a possible rise of Shiite power in Iraq after the fall of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein has alarmed Riyadh, although there has been little sign its Shiite population wants to break away.

"It's much less of an issue for the government right now than Sunni extremism," said one Western diplomat, referring to the May 12 suicide bombings in Riyadh that killed 35 people.

Saudi Arabia says al-Qaeda was behind that attack and a gunfight in the holy city of Mecca in which seven people died.

Dozens of suspects have been arrested. And, in a tacit admission that militancy is partly a home-grown problem, clerics were told to preach moderation.

The birthplace of Islam, Saudi Arabia has come under US pressure to curb religious radicals since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on US cities by hijacked planes. Fifteen of the 19 hijack suspects were Saudis.

Saffar said Riyadh faced danger from both Western demands and militant violence. "These outside circumstances and internal dangers ... pushed Prince Abdullah in this direction [dialogue]."

The meeting ended with a declaration acknowledging diversity of Muslim thought in Saudi Arabia. It also sought more political participation in an absolute monarchy and fair distribution of resources in the world's largest oil exporter.

Saudi Arabia faces growing economic challenges such as a rapidly rising population and significant unemployment that have not been addressed by the slow pace of reform.

Without mentioning al-Qaeda, the declaration called for restrictions on the right to declare jihad and for ways to protect religion in the face of modern communication.

Al-Qaeda and its supporters have made wide use of the Internet to spread their message in Saudi Arabia.

Sheikh Salman al Audah, a Sunni preacher who spent five years in jail accused of sowing dissent and chaos after he called for even stricter interpretation of Islamic law in Saudi Arabia, said the meeting was a "successful beginning."

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