That question has been asked over the course of the past week. The answer is rather straightforward. The unprovoked aggression being carried out against Awamiya and Musawara in the eastern Qatif province is happening because these people are Shia.
As shocking as that may seem to people who live outside the Middle East, let me shock you further and tell you more about the laws and policies of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) that restrict religious freedom, where the government generally enforces these restrictions.
Shias are second-class citizens
Freedom of religion is neither recognized nor protected under the law in the KSA and is severely restricted in practice. The country is an Islamic state governed by a monarchy; the king is head of both state and government.
According to the basic law, Sunni Islam is the official religion, and the country’s constitution is the Qur’an and the Sunna (traditions and sayings of the Prophet Mohammad). The legal system is based on the government’s application of the Hanbali School of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence, but the Wahhabi form of Islam is practiced widely. The public practice of any religion other than Islam is prohibited, and there is no separation between state and religion.
The government does not respect religious freedom in law. Some Muslims who do not obey the government’s interpretation of Islam face significant political, economic, legal, social, and religious discrimination, including limited employment and educational opportunities, under-representation in official institutions and restrictions on religious practice.
A law setting forth a range of measures to combat terrorism went into effect in February 2014 and included provisions criminalizing “calling for atheist thought,” “calling into question the Islamic religion,” and “sowing discord in society.” The new regulations come amid a campaign to silence independent activists and peaceful dissidents through intimidation, investigations, arrests, prosecutions, and imprisonment.
The government executed some individuals accused of sorcery, or “black magic,” among other offenses. It has also sentenced to death several Shia clerics, one of whom is prominent Sheikh Nimr EL Nimr, while arresting several individuals who publicly criticized discrimination against Shia citizens.
In one sentence, Saudi authorities do not treat minority Shia Muslims as equal citizens. Even Human Rights Watch said in a report released in 2009 that the Saudi government should “create commissions to investigate arbitrary arrests of Shia and to recommend steps to end systemic state discrimination.”
History repeating itself in eastern province
The unrest or rather warfare in the Shia-inhabited eastern province of Al Qatif is not a new occurrence. This has been happening for decades, back to the late 70s.
Since Al-Hasa and Qatif provinces were conquered and annexed into the Emirate of Riyadh in 1913 by Ibn Saud, Shia in the region have experienced state oppression. Unlike most of Saudi Arabia, Qatif and much of the eastern province has a Shia majority. The region is also of key importance to the Saudi government due to it both possessing the bulk of Saudi oil reserves, as well as the main Saudi refinery and export terminal of Ras Tanura, which is situated close to Qatif.
However, despite possessing the bulk of the oil which funds the Saudi monarchy, the region had traditionally been neglected by the central government and left undeveloped, and particularly lagging in respect to healthcare. Developmental priority was given to Sunni majority areas. Even Shia Aramco workers were paid less than Sunni workers, leading to increased anti-regime feelings.
As a result, Shia demonstrators spent the evening of November 11, 1979 shouting slogans against the royal family and the Americans who landed their jets at Dhahran air base for maneuvers. The Saudi regime responded by imposing a curfew on all the towns in the Qatif area, sealing off the area with tanks and armored vehicles. A bloody showdown between the armed forces and the Shia continued until November 30, 1979, in which reportedly thousands were arrested, hundreds injured and 24 killed.
Fast forward to today and we see that the Saudi monarchs still crackdown on the citizens of Qatif province in towns of Awamiyah and Musawara the same exact way.
For decades, opposition groups formed by Shias of Al Ahsa, both leftist and Islamists, as well as hundreds of petitions by Shia notables, have had the same demands: an end to sectarian discrimination in government employment and representation in main state sectors including at the ministerial level; more development in Shia areas; the strengthening of the Shia judiciary; and an end to arbitrary arrests of Shia for religious or political reasons. All the Shias living inside the KSA want is for their government to respect their identity and treat them equally, yet they are being intentionally bombed using US made weaponry.
Shias have long complained they face rooted discrimination in a country where the Wahhabi school regards their sect’s beliefs as heretical. They face abuse from Wahhabi clerics who advocate their killings on live TV and inside Wahhabi mosques and get labeled as “terrorists” when they stand up against such hate crimes.
Those basic complaints have over the years been aggravated by what Qatif residents call a violent hand against their community, accusing the authorities of unfair detentions and punishments, shooting unarmed protesters and torturing suspects.
International silence on Saudi aggression
Despite the fact the Western world and the UN are regular influential preachers against racism and bigotry, they seemingly choose to ignore the grim reality of the KSA’s human rights violations.
One cannot but fully comprehend that the US, UK and the UN continuously protect the monarchs of KSA under an exceptional form of “friendship,” all obviously in the name of economic pragmatism through the petrodollar system.
However, the fortune of Al Saud’s “best friends” has come at the expense of their moral credibility by selectively choosing to go blind to the kingdom’s human rights violations.
Hundreds of individuals are being systematically arrested at nonviolent protests and charged with “disrupting order” or even worse, “terrorism.” Many of those detained were made to sign pledges not to protest again and summarily issued with travel bans. Others have faced criminal charges and trials, under conditions as one report by Amnesty International claims Saudi police and judges have been instructed to “take all necessary measures” to suppress opposition.
Despite the “civilized world’s” vocations of support for the so-called “Arab Spring” and crocodile tears over human rights abuses in Syria, the consecutive US administrations, UK governments and other European powers have turned a blind eye to the brutal repression of Saudi protesters and the complete absence of democratic rights in the kingdom.
On the contrary, the imperialist powers have relied on the Saudi regime to crack down on working class uprisings in neighboring states like in Bahrain, bolstering allied dictatorships and supporting reactionary and extreme Islamist groups opposed to the democratic and social aspirations of the masses in Arabia.
Ms. Marwa Osman. PhD Candidate located in Beirut, Lebanon. University Lecturer at the Lebanese International University and Maaref University. Political writer/commentator on Middle East issues with many international and regional media outlets.
The Saudi town of Awamiyah with historically Shia population has been effectively besieged by the government forces for over a week following deadly clashes, with roadblocks blocking exits from the city and bulldozers razing homes, local eyewitnesses told RT.
While the visit of Donald Trump on Saturday to Saudi Arabia, which would be his first foreign visit as the 45th US president, gripped the attention of the international media, little has been reported about the plight of civilians in Awamiyah, a town in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province.
Some 25,000 residents of the town, most of them representing the country’s Shia minority, have been living in constant fear of being arrested, assaulted or killed since government troops raided the town nine days ago in what they claimed was an anti-terrorist operation, a local resident who asked not to be named told RT.
A 2-year-old boy and a Pakistani national were killed, and at least 14 people, including four policemen, were injured as a result of the raid in Awamiyah’s Almosara neighborhood, the Saudi Interior Ministry said in a statement last Friday. The authorities claimed that clashes erupted after unidentified “terrorists” fired at workers contracted by a company implementing a controversial renovation project in Awamiyah. The perpetrators also allegedly used explosives to knock the construction equipment out of operation. As the Saudi security forces tried to disarm the “terrorists,” they allegedly began firing randomly at the servicemen and passersby, which led to the casualties among civilians, according to the ministry.
The incident led to the neighborhood being effectively cut off from the rest of the region, with roadblocks placed on all the roads leading from the town and checkpoints set up.
In the meantime, social media have been inundated with footages of bulldozers and armed vehicles on the streets full of debris from partially demolished buildings with gaping holes in the walls and dangling wires. Some of the videos show cars being set alight with no fire engines containing the fire. Charred carcasses of vehicles could be seen in the aftermath. There have been reports that government forces are not allowing anybody to leave or enter the city while it is under siege. Subject to the restrictions are reportedly also ambulances and fire engines, and even garbage trucks, with people on some of the footage picking up litter scattered on the ground.
RT cannot independently verify the videos as it is impossible to access the site. Moreover, most locals refuse to openly speak to foreign media, fearing repercussions.
“You might get arrested any time, get shot or killed directly, which has already happened. Some people got shot in that area,” a local resident, who asked for his name not to be revealed, told RT by phone.
“All the entrances to Awamiyah are closed with checkpoints. Sometimes it is closed completely. You cannot enter or exit Awamiyah,” the man said, noting that the clashes in the city have been ongoing “almost all… night and day.”
He added that most of the shops in the town have been shut down, as people are too frightened to leave their homes.
As for the reasons for the reported crackdown, the eyewitness said there could be several possible explanations. One of them is the highly disputed renovation plan, enforced by the Saudi authorities in Almosara despite protests by the locals and calls by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to “halt the forced evictions and demolition” in the 400-year-old neighborhood.
“People disagree. However, they cannot do anything right now. They are frightened all the time, they might get arrested or killed in the middle of the street,” the local resident said, adding that he doubts the renovation plans exist at all.
“We did not see any projects, real projects, we only hear about them. We are afraid that these are only claims. What we see right now are just the claims without evidence,” he said, adding that locals “don’t know the real reason” behind the government’s crusade against the town.
He believes, however, that the ultimate goal of the Saudi authorities is to silence dissent, with which Awamiyah has been associated since 2011.
“I believe that Saudi government wants to teach their people, and especially, Al-Qatif citizens, that their demands and human rights will not be implemented by protest. All those protests and demands will be faced with arresting and raids.”
Awamiyah is the native town of influential Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, who was also Imam in a mosque there. Nimr was controversially executed in January 2016 after Riyadh charged him with terrorism. He is considered to be one of the leaders behind the 2011 protest movement and a vocal critic of the Saudi government’s treatment of Shiite minority. Nimr’s death sparked worldwide protests last year.
According to the latest data from the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights, three people died and over 25 have been injured in the course of the Saudi government’s raids in Awamiyah since May 10. Hundreds of families were evicted from their homes, 10 homes were burned down and over 50 cars have been damaged.
RT has sent requests to several human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, UNESCO, OHCHR, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB), and the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights to comment on the situation in Awamiyah.
So far, UNESCO has responded they are looking into RT’s report.