Potential Hot Spots: Arabia's Shia Coast

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The western shore of the Persian Gulf is smoldering. The people of the Arab states along the western coast of the Gulf are primarily Sunni Moslems. There is, however, a significant Shia presence in all of the states, and a majority in some. In several of these states, the Shia are largely represented by foreigners, a term that can mean anything from long-settled merchant and professional families to recently arrived "guest workers." For political reasons, some of the Gulf states do not publish reliable statistics, but apparently the Shia elements in the various countries are:

· Bahrain 70%
· Kuwait 15-25 %
· Oman 75% (most belong to a subgroup of the Shia movement)
· Qatar 10-12%
· Saudi Arabia 5% (but upwards of a third along the Gulf coast)
· UAE 15-20%

The conventional Sunni wisdom is that the Shia, aside from being heretics, are also likely to be prone to support Iranian ambitions in the area, given that predominantly Shia Iran is the regional "mini-super power" and has in the past, whether under the Shah or the Islamic Republic, occasionally dusted off ancient claims to ownership of the western littoral of the Gulf. This excuse permits the majority Sunni countries to impose some restrictions on the Shia. But in fact, this assumption may not have much grounding in reality.


Apparently there are serious traditional differences between Shia practices and beliefs among the Gulf Arabs and the Iranians. The critical difference is rooted in the different cultural traditions of the Gulf Arabs and the Iranians. Islam in Iran has been greatly influenced by ancient Persian culture, including some religious practices and festivals inherited from the pre-Islamic Zoroastrian tradition. Shia religious leaders in the Arab states are wary of Iranian influence, particularly among the young. At times they have been openly critical of Iranian actions, fearing that they are intended to bolster Iranian influence in the region by infiltrating the Shia community, which has been making progress against discrimination by the large Sunni populations among whom they live.


In the Sunni-dominated states, meanwhile, there have been gradual concessions to the Shia, inspired partially by fears of Iranian penetration. But there is a strong anti-Shia undertone. In fact, some Sunni radicals in Saudi Arabia openly assert that the American objective in Iraq is to turn the country into a Shia-dominated state, in the furtherance of Iranian regional ambitions, an argument that would undoubtedly cause hysterical laughter in the Oval Office.

 

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