Seizing the chance to make a mark in Saudi Arabia‘s first, limited nationwide vote, many were queuing long before election stations opened in the country’s eastern and southern regions.
“We are voting here to show we exist,” said Faleh al-Dajani, a Shia electrical engineer near the end of a queue of 250 people waiting outside a converted primary school in the eastern city of Dammam.
Thursday’s vote is the second stage of partial elections to municipal councils in Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy inching towards political reform under pressure from its ally the United States and from domestic and foreign activists.
Men in the capital Riyadh voted last month, while western and northern regions will vote in April.
Women are barred from standing or voting, although officials say they hope women will be able to take part in the next elections in four years’ time.
Only half the council seats are being contested – the remainder will be appointed – and the powers of the councils are expected to be limited.
In the oil-rich eastern province, Saudi Arabia‘s Shias, who say they face discrimination in the job market and cannot freely worship or study their own religion, have leapt on the limited opportunity which the elections present.
“I’m a human being now, because I’m voting”
Shia voter in Dammam
“We need someone to carry our voice to the people in charge. Look at the streets, the lighting, the services here,” said real estate businessman Muhammad Ahmad.
Despite sitting on the world’s biggest oil reserves, the source of Saudi Arabia‘s wealth, Shias say their region receives a low proportion of government spending.
Saudi Arabia‘s royal rulers follow the strict Wahabi school of Islam, which considers Shi’ism a heresy – a view rejected by most mainstream Muslim scholars.
Suspicion of Shia ambitions lingers after riots in the Eastern Province following Iran‘s 1979 revolution, and have been rekindled by a Shia revival in neighbouring Iraq since Saddam Hussein’s downfall.
In Dammam, a city of around 500,000, the 150,000 Shia residents are banned from building mosques and were prevented from marking last month’s ceremony of Ashura.
“I hope we can get our minimum rights. This is something better than nothing,” said 36-year-old Ali as he waited to vote.
Women are not allowed to stand
Officials say just over 200,000 people registered to vote in the Eastern Province.
In some areas registration reached over 45% – significantly higher than in the capital Riyadh.
The Shia mobilisation has alarmed some Sunnis, who rushed to the Internet to urge fellow Sunnis to register and prevent a strong Shia showing.
Nevertheless, Shias are likely to win all the seats contested in their stronghold of Qatif, where posters of prominent Shias including Lebanon‘s Hizb Allah leader Shaikh Hassan Nasr Allah are defiantly on display.
They are also likely to win several seats in the mixed region of al-Hasa.
Few, though, believe the elections will bring immediate improvements.
“There has been no tangible change in relations between the government and Shias,” said cleric Hassan al-Nimr.
“Shia books are still banned and Shia mosques are still banned, especially in Dammam. My son studies a syllabus which says he is an infidel”
“Shia books are still banned and Shia mosques are still banned, especially in Dammam. My son studies a syllabus which says he is an infidel.”
But he said the government had responded to popular pressure.
“Everyone welcomes it. What we hope is for this step to be followed by more serious ones.”
His cautious hope was echoed by several Dammam residents, but others were just happy to have a say.
“I’m a human being now, because I’m voting,” said one elderly man.