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Middle East Amp North Africa
Saudi attack raises fears of Isis effect
From the Financial Times of Tue, 04 Nov 2014 05:41:34 GMT

Gunmen killed five people in the restive eastern province of Saudi Arabia, prompting fears of a rise in sectarian violence as the Gulf kingdom grapples with the threat of domestic Sunni Islamist extremism.

The state news agency reported that another nine people had been wounded in the attack late on Monday in al-Dalwah, a town in the al-Ahsa governorate, a major population centre for the Shia minority of the Sunni-ruled monarchy.

Videos circulating on social media appeared to show the aftermath of the attack, which apparently took place as worshippers left a Shia religious building.

Shia are this week celebrating Ashoura, commemorating the death of the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson in a battle that led to the 1,300-year-old schism between Shia and Sunni Islam. The 10-day religious festival often attracts inter-communal violence.

The attack comes as Saudi Arabia, a member of the US-led coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, known as Isis, braces itself for an overspill of radicalism via domestic Islamist extremists.

In Iraq there has been an increase in attacks on Shia neighbourhoods as the government battles Isis forces across the country.

Observers have expressed concerns that Isis sympathisers could also launch attacks against Shia Muslims or foreigners in Saudi Arabia, copying the brutal tactics of jihadi groups against those whom they regard as apostates.

Thousands of Saudis have joined the ranks of jihadi fighters in Syria and Iraq, many encouraged by firebrand clerics who often stir up religious sentiment against non-Sunnis.

While the government has cracked down on jihadi sympathisers, Islamist extremist groups share some aspects of the conservative strain of Wahhabi Islam propagated in the kingdom.

Tensions have already been rising in the Shia-dominated towns of al-Ahsa and al-Qatif since a leading cleric was sentenced to death for sedition. Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr led protests in the nearby town of Qatif during the height of the Arab revolts of 2011.

In neighbouring Bahrain, frequent protests persist led by the majority Shia against minority Sunni rule. Attempts to resolve the stand-off between the government and Shia activists have so far failed, raising the prospect of continued unrest.

The Shia in Saudi Arabia claim economic and religious discrimination, saying they find it harder to secure state jobs and set up places of worship. The authorities deny the claims.

Sunnis fear that the Shia harbour political loyalty to coreligionists in Iran, the Sunni Gulf states’ regional rival.

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