WASHINGTON — This year's harsh crackdown on Shiite Muslims in Bahrain follows the playbook that Sunni Muslim-ruled Saudi Arabia used against Shiites in its own Eastern Province as recently as two years ago, secret State Department cables show.
Some of the officials named in the cables as responsible for the 2009 Eastern Province crackdown now are advising Bahrain's leaders.
Among the topics the cables discuss are the arbitrary arrests of Shiite clerics and residents, the closing of Shiite mosques and the blocking of Shiites from an important religious site in the Muslim holy city of Medina.
The cables provide rare documentation of what human rights officials have long thought is a persistent campaign waged against Shiites in Saudi Arabia by their own government. Saudi Arabia strictly controls access by foreign journalists, and, the cables note, Saudi officials often take steps to discourage coverage of incidents by local news organizations.
The cables, most of them sent from the U.S. consulate in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, express concern that the Saudi actions are likely to fuel a sense of disaffection among Shiites, especially young people, and may make them feel less Saudi, a development that experts warn could fuel sympathy for Shiite-ruled Iran.
"Discriminatory measures such as the mosque closings . . . continue to be the modus operandi of elements of the (Saudi Arabian government) in their interactions with the Shia minority sect," said one cable, dated Aug. 15, 2009.
Another cable, sent Sept. 16, 2009, said that "contacts" in the region were concerned that "the discrimination . . . is alienating the Shia community, particularly the youth, and is compromising their sense of Saudi 'national identity.' "
The Saudi Embassy in Washington declined to comment. U.S. officials don't respond to requests for comment about WikiLeaks cables.
In annual human rights reports, the State Department has expressed concern about anti-Shiite actions in Saudi Arabia but it's unclear whether U.S. officials protest the actions in their private meetings with Saudi officials.
The similarity between the actions ascribed to Saudi officials in the cables and what's taken place in Bahrain since Saudi troops arrived there March 15 also is striking. Saudi officials quoted in the cables even cite the same reasons for closing mosques — improper permits and illegal construction — that Bahraini officials used to explain why they've destroyed at least 40 Shiite mosques in the last three months.
According to the Aug. 15, 2009, cable, Saudi officials closed at least five Shiite mosques in the Eastern Province in 2009. At least 20 had been closed since 1998, the Sept. 16, 2009, cable said.
"Several contacts claim that Prince Mohammed bin Fahd (MbF), the wealthy and influential son of the late King Fahd, is behind the mosque closings, noting that the orders came from the provincial governor's office," the Aug. 15 cable said, discussing the closing of mosques in the city of Khobar. "MbF will not lift the ban on Shia mosques in al-Khobar unless his hand is forced by the King."
Another cable, dated March 25, 2009, singled out Saudi Interior Minister Prince Naif bin Abdulaziz al Saud as "ultimately behind many of the abuses and discrimination of the Shi'a."
The Sept. 16 cable cited yet a third Saudi leader in connection with the crackdown, Prince Badr bin Jalawi, the governor of the Ahsa region, which comprises much of the Eastern Province.
Citing a source whose name McClatchy has decided not to publish out of concern for his safety, the cable said that "the Prince's discrimination against the Shia is 'systemic and intentional.' "
Sources also told U.S. diplomats that "Badr is 'extreme' in his discrimination," and that "Prince Badr is 'playing with fire' by harassing al Ahsa's Shia residents."
Naif and bin Fahd have had publicized meetings with Bahraini officials since the crackdown began there. Bahrain is an island nation connected to the Eastern Province mainland by a causeway.
On April 22, bin Fahd traveled to the Bahraini capital of Manama to meet King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa about the Shiite uprising and other matters.
A statement from the Saudi Embassy in Washington said King Hamad lauded "the support that the (Saudi) Kingdom ... has provided Bahrain against foreign interference and destabilization attempts."
On April 19, when Bahrain's prime minister visited Riyadh to consult about how to address the unrest, a key figure attending was Saudi Interior Minister Naif.
To outsiders, the division between the dominant Sunni sect and minority Shiites can seem incomprehensible. In simplest terms, Shiites believe that the Prophet Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law Ali was his rightful heir. Since Muhammad's death in A.D. 632, the sects have practiced and interpreted Islam very differently, not unlike the differences between Catholics and Protestants in Christianity, which occasionally have led to war.
Those Islamic differences led to a major clash in February 2009 between Saudi security forces and Shiite pilgrims in the Saudi city of Medina, Islam's second holiest city and the burial place of the Prophet Muhammad.
According to a Feb. 24, 2009, cable from the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh, skirmishes between police and as many as 2,000 Shiite pilgrims, most of them women, broke out after the pilgrims were denied entry to the Baqi'a cemetery, which, the cable said, "is the final resting place of many important figures from the early days of Islam, including relatives and companions of the Prophet Muhammad."
"The Shi'a venerate these graves, and hold a historical grudge against the Al Saud for the destruction of the tombs that occurred when King Abdalaziz conquered Medina in 1925," the cable said.
The confrontation went on for nearly three hours, according to one version recounted in the cable, and ended when "the security forces used water cannon (and according to one source tear gas) to disperse the women."
The cemetery incident was cited in a March 25, 2009, cable as one of the reasons for rising tensions that contributed to a sit-down demonstration by Shiites on March 19 in Awamiyya, a village known for its radical Shiite politics. After the demonstration, the cable said, Saudi security officials cut off the electricity and swept through the village, arresting dozens of youths, some as young as 12.
Perhaps the most crucial realm in which Shiites are denied equal rights in Saudi Arabia is in their freedom to practice their religion the same way Sunnis can.
The cables show that Shiites struggled to obtain proper building permits for their mosques while Sunnis had it easy. The Sept. 16, 2009, cable noted how a protected source "joked that if 'just one Sunni complains' that he must travel too far to attend mosque the government will approve and fund a new mosque 'tomorrow.' "
Middle Eastern experts warn of long-term negative consequences to U.S. interests should Saudi and Bahraini repression of Shiites continue.
"My fear, and I think the U.S. fear, is that by cracking down, there is a risk of heightening sectarian feelings and that gives Iran an opportunity to exploit sectarianism. Whereas smart reforms could essentially have the opposite effect of dampening the sectarianism and closing off opportunities for Iran," said Michael Singh, a former director of Middle East affairs on George W. Bush's National Security Council.
To the experts, Bahrain increasingly looks like a Saudi province.
"There's a clear sectarian strain that runs through all of this. And Riyadh has not only given the green light to the Bahrainis to crack down, but is probably more than just a passive partner in all of this," said Toby Jones, an assistant professor of Middle East history at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.
The widening Sunni-Shiite gulf threatens stability in the world's most important oil-exporting nation.
"Frankly, all the crackdown is going to do, if it continues in its current form, it's going to sow the seeds of future radicalism within the Shia community," Jones said. "If the American anxiety is that Iran may play a more influential role, the only thing that the crackdown is doing is guaranteeing the fact that that will be an outcome."
(Kevin G. Hall contributed to this report.)