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  Updated: October 6, 2006

Saudi official acknowledges anti-Shiite discrimination in kingdom

By: Mohamed Ali

WASHINGTON: A high-rank Saudi official, for the first time, has acknowledged publicly before a Western audience that the Shiites in Saudi Arabia "have suffered social and political alienation and discrimination."

But Saudi Ambassador to the US and previously for 25 years head of the Saudi General Intelligence Directorate Prince Turki Al-Faisal sought to play down fears of a full-scale Shiite-Sunni civil war in Iraq.

And he also challenged the two most alarmist arguments that have been made so far from Arab leaders about the prospects of a Shiite resurgence. Jordan's King Abdullah has warned that an ominous "Shiite crescent" is emerging, dominated by Iran but including Iraq and Lebanon. And Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak has suggested that the real problem is that many Shiites owe their loyalties to Iran rather than to their own countries.

"Those are his views -- not those of the Saudi kingdom," Prince Turki said in the course of a rare question-and-answer session at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Wednesday, October 4.

"I am of the view that there will not be a sectarian civil war in Iraq, because in most of Iraq the links and interlinks of Sunni and Shiites go far beyond the efforts to drive them apart," Prince Turki said.

Many Iraqi tribes and clans contain both Sunnis and Shiites, and there are many Sunni-Shiite intermarriages, he noted, and the tribal and clan and personal links cross sectarian lines.

"In practical terms, how could such a civil war happen?" he asked. "It is practically impossible to divide Iraq into sectarian regions. It would mean mass emigration and ethnic cleansing, and a lot of killing between families and tribal groupings."

The question of the Shiite is acute for Saudi Arabia, since most of the oil wells, refineries and other key facilities are close to the shore of the Persian Gulf, where the Saudi Shiites are concentrated, and where they provide close to half of the labor force in the oil industry.

"The problem in the Kingdom has been recognized and there are efforts now to resolve this. King Abdullah has extended his hand to them (the Shiites) and brought them more into the fold. The effort will continue and may take some time. Things like that often do," Prince Turki said.    


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