New found confidence: Shia in
Saudi Arabia and Iraq  
have become more vocal

Jaffar al-Shayeb, the delegation’s leader, said the petition was presented at the end of last month and called on the government to begin employing Shia in the military and diplomatic services.

“The petition was signed by 450 members of the Shia community, who raised their voices in unison to demand reform,” said al-Shayeb.

The demand also called for the formal outlawing of all forms of discrimination with “a clear declaration affirming respect for the rights of Shia ... on an equal footing with other citizens.”

Among more specific requests were representation in official Islamic bodies such as the Muslim World League, the International Islamic Relief Foundation and the World Assembly of Muslim Youth.

“Here in Qatif we live in a Shia area, but even for very local positions in the Qatif municipality – the police chief, the head of education, the governor – all are Sunni”, said al-Shayeb, who runs a communications business. “There is no law of any kind prohibiting discrimination. It is really terrible and frustrating, and it is facing you everywhere you go.”

There are no Shia among the several new appointees to the Saudi Arabian cabinet named last week and even Shia mosques must use the Sunni call to prayer, according to headmaster Yasiin Ramadan.

Change is likely to take some time, according to Professor Abdulhayy at King Saud University in Riyadh. “There remain in this country other groups that will benefit from not giving a minority their rights – fanatical, closed-minded persons. But in the end, it is the national good that would be served if the rightful and justified demands for equality materialised,” he said.

Iraq's Shia enjoy a rise to
prominence, but Saudis may not
want outside involvement in change

The end of the war in Shia-majority Iraq may have affected the timing of the petition. “What has happened there in Iraq, it will of course affect our country, our life, even affect people’s thinking, and perhaps show the way for how to approach these goals in a peaceful way,” said Muhammad Jabran, a businessman from near Qatif.

Saudi officials repeatedly deny charges of discrimination against religious minorities, but concerns over greater political authority in the oil-rich Eastern Province and a growing Shia confidence in neighbouring Iraq and Bahrain may be a cause of concern to the Saudi government.

In a bid to allay these fears, al-Shayeb emphasised that the petition reaffirmed the loyalty of the two million minority - 10 percent of the population - to the kingdom and their desire to maintain national unity.

“We have no alliance with anyone outside the country and indeed want to resolve this issue so that it doesn’t leave any space for outsiders to exploit,” he added.