The Secret Populations of Saudi Arabia
Worries about Saudi Arabia's own Shi'ite minority make it willing to conciliate Iran -- and cooperate with it. (AP).
AWWAMIYA, Saudi Arabia (AP) - They rattle the town with the sound of automatic weapons fire into the air, celebrating weddings. They wear tiny pictures of Hezbollah leaders. Residents say these are signs of a small core of Shiite extremists in this impoverished town. Moderate Saudi Shiites worry that Iran or other outsiders could use the extremists to stir up trouble in mainly Sunni Saudi Arabia - or that the militants could prompt a backlash from Sunni hard-liners - either way, giving the government a reason to clamp down on the Shiite minority.
Amir Taheri, writing in 2003, noted that Shi'ites may make up as much as 15% of the Kingdom's population. "Oficially, they do not exist. In reality, however, Saudi Arabia's Shiites account for 15 percent of the kingdom's population of 20 million. Last month their existence was tacitly acknowledged when the state media briefly reported a meeting between a delegation of Shiites and the kingdom's de facto ruler, Crown Prince Abdallah Ibn Abdel-Aziz. ... Concentrated in the oil-rich province of Al-Sharqiyah, Saudi Shiites form a good part of the kingdom's urban middle class. They are also strongly present in the liberal professions and the private business sector. And, yet, when it comes to public positions, Saudi Shiites shine with their absence. Of the top 400 government positions, a only one is held by a Shiite undersecretary of state. Of the 120 members of the all-appointed Saudi parliament only two are Shiites."
The Shi'tes are only one of several hidden populations in the Saudi Kingdom. The other of course, is the huge number of overseas workers who literally keep it going, constituting up to a third of the entire population. Human Rights Watch says there "seven million expatriates in the kingdom, about one-third of the total population, Dr. Ali al-Namlah, Saudi Arabia's then-long-serving minister of labor and social affairs, told Human Rights Watch in January 2003. He added that 5.5 million of the total number of foreigners were workers, and the remainder their dependents. New statistics were disclosed in May 2004, indicating an even higher number of expatriates. According to labor minister Dr. Ghazi al-Ghosaibi, there were 8.8 million foreigners in the kingdom representing almost 50 percent of the indigenous population." Many of these overseas workers are not even Muslim, and in a country where only Islam may be practiced, they must effectively practice their faiths underground -- in the 21st century and in despite of any so-called UN Declaration of Human Rights.
The largest expatriate communities in Saudi Arabia include one million to 1.5 million people each from Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan, and another 900,000 each from Egypt, Sudan, and the Philippines. The wages that these and other migrant workers send home places Saudi Arabia second only to the United States as the source of the largest amount of remittance payments in the world. Remittances from Saudi Arabia totaled some 285.3 billion riyals – about U.S. $76 billion – in the five-year period between 1995 and 1999. The government has repeatedly stated its intention to reduce the number of foreign workers in the kingdom and replace them with hundreds of thousands of unemployed Saudis, a process termed "Saudiization" of the labor force. ...
Intolerance of religious diversity in Saudi Arabia has been well documented elsewhere. Migrant workers who are not Muslims but are religiously observant must adjust to the absence of houses of worship for their religious faiths, and refrain from public display of religious symbols such as Christian crosses or the tilaka – the distinctive "holy spot" – that many Hindus apply on the forehead between the eyes. Private worship in community with others must always proceed cautiously and not be conspicuous. Some migrants described to us how they were forced to arrive in very small numbers over long periods of time to attend private religious services in designated private places so as not to arouse the suspicion of Saudi citizens or the feared religious police.
Saudi authorities continue to arrest foreigners, including Muslims, for peaceful private religious practice. Followers of Sufi orders continue to face harassment because Sufism, with its individualized and mystical approach to Islam, is perceived as a sharp departure from strict Islamic orthodoxy. In September 2003, the daily al-Madinah reported that the religious police in Sakaka, acting on a complaint, raided a house at 11 p.m. and arrested sixteen migrant workers for "allegedly practicing Sufism." According to the newspaper, the police "arrested the leader of the group and confiscated a picture of him which his supporters venerated. The group has lived in the area for several years and has been in the habit of distributing Sufi writings among the expatriate community." During the raid police reportedly seized magazines, videocassettes, and other materials. More recently, the religious police in Mecca reportedly arrested over 200 migrant workers from Bangladesh and Burma for attending a party in celebration of St. Valentine's Day, where alcohol was allegedly consumed. Following the arrests, the kingdom's highest religious authority, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al Sheikh, was quoted as saying: "What these workers did in a holy place by celebrating and singing and drinking alcohol is a very grave sin." He remarked that Valentine's Day is "an infidel tradition that has no place in Islam."