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DOHA: True to its reputation Aljazeera English channel yesterday aired a debate on the sectarian tension in the Qatif town in Saudi Arabia’s eastern province. While some Doha residents appreciated the channel as being bold in taking up an issue touchy in most Gulf societies, others were critical of the channel for being provocative.
In the AlJazeera The Stream programme “Qatif unrest and what lies ahead”, a Shia activist from the town, which roughly has 33 percent Shia population, called on Riyadh to recognise his community as a minority.
“The Saudi government does not recognise Shias as a minority. It has never accepted that there are Shias in Saudi Arabia,” Syed Mohamed (not his real name), a Qatif activist, said taking part in the debate.
Syed Mohamed said that Shias of Saudi Arabia are indeed a minority and want an end to official discrimination against them. “We want to be part of the Saudi mainstream. We are sons of the soil.”
Prominent journalist and blogger, Ebtihal Mubarak, and Saudi columnist Abdullah Alami, were also the guests on Aljazeera’s popular show ‘AJ Stream’ that was aired late last evening.
Alami said what was happening in Qatif (a reference to the protests over the arrest of the famed Shia cleric Sheikh Al Nimr) was due to the intervention of Iran.
“There are signs that Iran is being hostile to the Gulf states. It has occupied the three islands that belong to the UAE and is hostile to Kuwait. It is supporting the Syrian regime,” said Alami.
The anchor of the programme intervened and asked Alami if it would not be in the interest of Saudi Arabia to cement the loyalty of its Shia population if Iran was making a power play and taking undue advantage of Shia resentment.
Struggling to answer the poser — a simple and logical one —Alami said: “We want both Shias and Sunnis (in Saudi Arabia) to be happy.”
Ebtihal Mubarak described the arrest of the Shia cleric as the ‘most aggressive arrest’ and hinted that it had led to widespread sentiment in the Shia community in the area.
Aljazeera website, meanwhile, said that for decades nearly two million Shia have struggled against what it views as discrimination.
The recent arrest of a prominent Shia cleric and the deaths of those protesting his detainment have highlighted tensions in the Eastern Province.
The website said that since the Arab Spring, protests in Qatif have occurred regularly, with Shias continuing to demand an end to sectarian discrimination in employment, political representation and economic development opportunities. They are also calling for the release of all political prisoners and an end to arbitrary arrests.