Gulf Sunni monarchies fear ‘Shia Spring’

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The Sunni Muslim monarchies of the Gulf fear that Shias on the Arabian peninsula will rise up against their rule, inspired by the Arab Spring, community leaders in the region say. “They want to transform the Arab Spring into a ‘Shia Spring’,” said Abdellatif al-Mahmud, a Sunni cleric in Bahrain, where a protest movement led by the Shia majority was crushed in March. The Arab Spring, which has swept the region and toppled three autocratic leaders, “has whetted the appetite of Shia in our region,” Mahmud told AFP on the sidelines of a Doha seminar on the role of religious diversity in the Gulf. Walid Tabtabai, a Kuwaiti Sunni, was even more virulent. “Since the Shias are the majority, they are attacking Sunnis,” he said, citing the case of Iran, as well as Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni regime in 2003.
But Sheikh Ali Salman, the head of Bahrain’s leading Shia opposition formation, Al-Wefaq, rejected “this inappropriate approach.” “The Arab Spring involves all faiths and all communities, including the Amazigh,” or Libya’s Berbers, who helped to overthrow Moamer Gaddafi’s regime, he said. Bahrain’s crackdown on Shia protests, carried out with the help of other Gulf monarchies, raised tensions in countries with Shia minorities, including Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, where four people were killed last month in clashes with security forces. “The problem is political, and not confessional,” said Ali Salman, whose group calls for democratic reforms to ensure equality and eliminate discrimination among Bahrainis.
His analysis is shared by Kuwaiti intellectual Mohammed al-Rumaihi, said it is necessary “to promote the sense of citizenship” in order to get rid of religious and tribal communalism. Fawzia Hani, a Saudi Shia human rights activist, agreed. “A weak sense of citizenship promotes sectarianism and creates a gap between the state and people,” she told the seminar. However, the proximity of predominantly Shia Iran raises concerns and suspicion in its Arab neighbours who fear their own Shia communities are being influenced by Tehran, which has clear ambitions to establish itself as a regional power.