Tue, Mar 09, 2004 - Page 9 News List

The rise of the commonwealth of `Petrolistan'

By Mai Yamani

The hideous bombings of Shiite shrines in Kerbala will neither change nor obscure a powerful new fact of life in the Middle East. For now that the dust of the Iraq War has settled, it is clear that the Shiites have emerged, blinking in the sunlight, as the unexpected winners. Governments that have oppressed the Shiites for decades may still be in denial about this, but the terrorists who planted those bombs are not. They recognize, as the Shiites themselves now do, that, across the Gulf, Shiite Muslims are gaining massively in political power, and are awakened to their ability both to organize themselves and to the gift that lies literally under their feet: oil.

After years of repression at the hands of Saddam Hussein, Iraq's Shiites are tasting freedom -- and spurring their religious counterparts throughout the Gulf to become more assertive. They've also woken up to the accident of geography that has placed the world's major oil supplies in areas where they form the majority -- Iran, the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and southern Iraq. Welcome to the new commonwealth of "Petrolistan."

The newfound power of Shiite Muslims in this volatile region represents a major challenge both to the old Sunni ruling establishments -- outside Iran -- and to the US. The years of Shiite subservience are over.

So what are the Shiites planning? What is their inspiration? Will bearded men in turbans and veiled women rule them, or will we see suits and high heels? If they want democracy, will anyone recognize it as such?

Hostile face of islam

It wasn't until 1979 that the Shiites first appeared on Western radar screens, emerging in Iran at the head of a violent revolution that murdered thousands and dispatched the Shah into history. In Western eyes, the Shiites became the hostile and militant face of Islam, intent on exporting violence.

Their Sunni counterparts, even the most fundamentalist Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia, appeared tame in comparison. But the terrorist attacks on the US of Sept. 11, 2001, rewrote that idea for good.

The hijackers were all Sunni. Their hosts and backers, the Taliban, were also Sunni, as are all the prisoners at America's military base turned prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Sunni Muslims dominated Saddam's Baathist regime -- and the so-called Sunni Triangle in central Iraq is the site of the fiercest hostility to the US-led occupation and its local supporters. In the space of but a few months, Sunni Muslims have replaced the Shiites as the biggest threat to the West and to international security.

For their part, Shiite minorities claim to welcome democracy. But then minorities -- especially with a history of subjugation -- always do (at least for a time), because it allows them to claim religious freedom and express their cultural identity.

In Saudi Arabia, the Shiites are at the forefront of those welcoming democratic change and participation. Although they constitute only 20 percent of the total Saudi population, they form 75 percent of the population in the oil-rich eastern region.

Saudi Arabia's Shiites have suffered discrimination in the professions: in the military, in high government positions, the diplomatic corps, and most significantly, in the oil industry, where they have been excluded since the 1980s. This systematic exclusion of the Shiites is supported by the Wahhabi religious establishment and legitimized by numerous fatwa denouncing them as heretics.

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