Away from the eyes of most of the world, a town in eastern Saudi Arabia has been besieged by security forces. Whereas Riyadh portrays it as part of a redevelopment project, activists say civilians have been killed.
I mages emerging from a town in eastern Saudi Arabia show razed buildings, many of those left standing marked with bullet holes, reminiscent of war zones like Mosul and Aleppo. According to Saudi authorities, this is part of a planned demolition and redevelopment of a historic neighbourhood in the predominantly Shia town of Awamiya. Human Rights Watch and other organisations, however, accuse Saudi security forces of having besieged the whole town as they fight armed elements.
Local activists told Human Rights Watch residents, including a three-year-old boy, had been killed or injured as a result of the violence which erupted in May. Satellite imagery showed significant damage to the area. What is more, residents said security forces fired into populated areas far from the area to be demolished and sealed off entrances and exits to the town.
According to residents and activists, the armed men active in the town were on authorities’ wanted lists in relation with protest-related crimes. Earlier in August special forces reportedly finished clearing the area tapped for the development project from “wanted terrorists and other criminals”, who according to the acting governor of the region came to hide in the town’s al-Musawara district. However, media reports paint a picture of ongoing instability.
One resident identified as Ali told Human Rights Watch: “The security situation in Awamiya has been terrible for the past 80 days. While I was still in Awamiya, the town was constantly bombarded by shelling and security forces were going around shooting in residential neighbourhoods at random.”
Awamiya as many other parts of the eastern region of Saudi Arabia has a history of opposition to the monarchy. The town is the birthplace of the prominent Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, whose execution in early 2016 sparked a regional crisis during which protesters attacked Saudi diplomatic compounds in Iran and Gulf states cut relations with Tehran. Sheikh al-Nimr delivered fiery sermons against the ruling al-Saud family before his arrest and became the de-facto leader of the protest movement in eastern Saudi Arabia which emerged as part of the Arab Spring in 2011.
The situation in Awamiya and other parts of Qatif governorate got more intense after the Arab Spring protests as the government cracked down hard on dissent, Mohammed al-Nimr, a Saudi activist from Awamiya based in the US, told The World Weekly. He says it was around 2014 that armed men started fighting against the government, “in response” to the crackdown.
Making up around 10% of the ultra-conservative kingdom’s population, Shia have long complained about discrimination in education and a lack of opportunities to attain much sought-after government jobs. While containing most of Saudi Arabia’s oil, the eastern region, home to most Shia residents, also lags behind in terms of economic development. The royal family, Mr. al-Nimr adds, has portrayed the people of Qatif as “enemies”.
The majority of Saudi Arabia follows an ultra-conservative strand of Sunni Islam widely known as Wahhabism. The roots of the modern Saudi state hark back to an alliance between the al-Saud family and the ultra-conservative Wahhabi movement founded by Mohammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab in 18th-century Arabia. Wahhabism has been linked with the ideology of militant groups such as Islamic State or al-Qaeda and Wahhabi preachers frequently portray Shia as apostates or heretics. Riyadh remains a key ally of the West in the fight against terrorism.
A ‘perfect diversion’
“The Saudi leadership has addressed tensions in the eastern Province in ways which have worsened sectarian strife,” says Giorgio Cafiero, co-founder of Gulf State Analytics, citing Sheikh al-Nimr’s execution as a prime example. While Saudi officials maintain they are fighting terrorism linked to Iran and Hezbollah, Mr. Cafiero stressed, many Shia see such demolitions as part of “Riyadh’s quest to crush dissent”.
Other observers have suggested that the development project was actually a forced relocation plan in the heart of a majority Shia area. Activists said very few residents have been fully compensated for their destroyed homes as promised by the government.
“Awamiya is the perfect diversion” for the ruling family, says Mr. al-Nimr. He described the operation there as part of an effort to unite people against a common enemy amidst difficulties with the war in Yemen and a bad economy at home. “As long as the diversion is needed, they will continue,” Mr. al-Nimr told TWW, predicting that security forces would focus their attention elsewhere after fully controlling Awamiya.
The events in Saudi Arabia’s east come shortly after the king’s favourite son, Mohammed bin Salman, was made crown prince in a notable shakeup of the succession to the throne which has seen longtime interior minister Mohammed bin Nayef demoted and his branch of the royal family lose power. Amidst reports of alleged tensions within the ruling family as a result of the shakeup, the new crown prince is presenting himself as a strongman in the country.
Saudi Shia in Awamiya face discrimination every day, and for the last three months have been caught in the crossfire. Saudi authorities should take immediate steps to allow people to safely return home, allow business and clinics to reopen, and compensate residents for property damage and destruction caused by security forces.”
In the end, a continuous crackdown in the east might foster the instability Riyadh has been so desperate to avoid and fan the flames of sectarian tensions in the ultra-conservative kingdom.
Mr. al-Nimr and other activists have called for more international pressure. “If there was Western pressure, they would stop.”