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Saudi Arabia has marginalized and persecuted its Shiite population since the country’s creation in 1932. The latest crisis took place during the summer of 2017, when Saudi security forces devastated the city of Awamiya in the predominantly Shiite eastern province of Qatif. The BBC’s Sally Nabil, who was granted rare access to the area, described the city as a conflict zone, which mirrored images of destruction in Mosul (Iraq) and Aleppo (Syria).
The seeds to the conflict were sown in 2016, when Saudi authorities announced plans to demolish Musawara, Awamiya’s old quarter, and build a shopping mall in its place. The following year, on 10 May 2017, government security forces accompanied bulldozers to Musawara but were met with resistance from unknown gunmen. Clashes soon erupted into all-out fighting.
By August 2017, government sources told CNN that the neighbourhood’s narrow streets and small buildings were serving as a ‘criminal’ haven. Nearly all inhabitants from Musawara fled the fighting. Most have reportedly told activists and reporters that they opposed the government’s plan to tear down their neighbourhood and relocate them. The UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, Karima Bennoune, also warned that doing so would erase Awamiya’s unique heritage.
Saudi authorities clearly did not care, although they denied having any political motive to relocate inhabitants forcefully. But Middle East expert Sebastian Sons, from the German Council on Foreign Relations, told DW that he suspects otherwise. “[I think] the [Saudis] are trying to disperse and dissolve the Shia minority that is so dominant in the area by removing its base,” he told the publication in August 2017, during the fighting.
Resistance had long been festering in Awamiya. During the Arab Spring in 2011, the charismatic sheikh Nimr al-Nimr spoke out in defence of pro-democracy protestors in Bahrain, a Shia majority country that is ruled by a repressive Sunni royal family. He also denounced Saudi Arabia’s systematic discrimination against its own Shiites.
“From the day I was born and to this day, I’ve never felt safe or secure in this country. We are not loyal to other countries or authorities, nor are we loyal to this country,” he said in a speech during the uprisings. “What is this country? The regime that oppresses me? The regime that steals my money, sheds my blood and violates my honour?”
Al-Nimr’s bravado elevated his stature. As his following grew, so did the House of Saud’s desire to get rid of him. In 2012, authorities moved to arrest him but came under fire when they entered Awamiya. Nimr was even shot in the leg before he was eventually seized. He was later handed a death sentence, leading to his beheading along with 46 others on 2 January 2016.
Taha Hajji, a Shiite human rights defender from Saudi Arabia, told Fanack Chronicle that he tried to convince the authorities to spare al-Nimr in the months leading up to his execution. He also remembers attending a gathering inside the mosque in which al-Nimr used to preach. “It wasn’t a protest, but the gathering was a way for us all to show our connection with and support for Nimr. This gathering took place before he was killed,” Hajji, who now lives in Germany, said over the phone.
Al-Nimr’s death has not dissuaded people from resisting state oppression. However, Hajji says that most Saudi Shiites do not condone violence under any circumstances. He also says that he does not know the political affiliation of the gunmen who clashed with Saudi forces last summer but that they were all wanted by the state.
“These men fought against the Saudi forces when they came to bulldoze the area, because they feared they would be captured, tortured and then killed if they were arrested. They thought it was better to fight till the end,” he said.
These fighters, claims Hajji, are commonly referred to by Awamiya inhabitants as the matloubeen (‘the wanted’) or matroudeen (‘the hunted’). To catch them, the Saudi state has reportedly resorted to collective punishment by arresting their relatives. Meanwhile, almost all civilians from Musawara have been permanently uprooted. Although they were all financially compensated and given alternative housing, Hajji said that many people complained to him that their living conditions are now much more difficult. Several families, he noted, live in the same apartment because they cannot afford their own.
Nevertheless, the government blames terrorists for destroying the old quarter in Awamiya, although the roots of the conflict run much deeper. The most obvious paradox is that religious intolerance is part of the teachings of the Wahhabi establishment. State-backed religious clerics preach hate against Shiites from their mosques. Some sheikhs have even condemned marriages between Muslims of different sects, while referring to Shiites in derogatory terms.
Hatred towards Shiites is also institutionalized. Saudi schoolbooks often frame Shiites as heretics, while school teachers routinely discriminate against Shiite school children in the eastern city of Dammam, according to a CNN report by Syed Jaffar. Shiites are further side-lined from occupying senior ministerial and security positions.
Worse still, the contentiousness of regional geopolitics has amplified the persecution of Shiites, says Middle East Researcher Adam Google for Human Rights Watch. Saudi authorities, he writes, have previously suggested that their own Shiite citizens are more loyal to Iran than the House of Saud.
In April 2015, the governor of the Eastern province, Prince Saud bin Nayef al-Saud, said that the kingdom would stand united against the descendants of the fickle Safavid Abdullah ibn Saba, who are trying to divide the nation. Google explains that the Safavid dynasty ruled Iran from the 16th to 18th century, overseeing the conversion of people in the area to Shia Islam. Saudi Shiites, he claims, interpreted Nayef al-Saud’s words as an accusation that they were acting on behalf of Iran to instigate turmoil in the kingdom. The comment came after gunmen in Qatif shot dead two Saudi officers.
Saudi activists deny outright accusations that they are part of a wider Iranian conspiracy. Their only ambition, most say, is to be treated as equal citizens. Rights groups argue that doing so would be in the Saudi government’s best interests. The only way to end unrest in the eastern province, according to Google, is to give full rights to Shiites.