Tension and revolt in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province – The Economist
The kingdom’s Shias are angry
AWAMIYA, a town of some 30,000 in Saudi Arabia’s Shia-dominated Eastern Province, had been simmering ever since its cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, called on his followers to join the Arab spring in 2011. When the security forces responded that year with live ammunition, and incarcerated hundreds of youths, it only fired him up him more. “If we don’t get our dignity we cannot be blamed for seeking independence,” a video clip shows him saying. And when on January 1st this year the Saudi authorities executed Nimr and two fellow Shias on charges of treachery and inciting terrorism, Awamiyya started to put his aspiration for self-rule into practice.
The town’s walls today carry the message. “Long live al-Nimr” and “Death to the Al Sauds” are some of its milder slogans. Nimr’s portrait hangs from billboards and balconies alongside the Imam Hussein’s, an ancient symbol of Sunni oppression. Lamp posts are laced with black ribbon. Apart from the heavily garrisoned police station, whose approach road is strewn with rocks, tyres and barbed wire, the town is bereft of a government presence. Booksellers openly sell copies of Shia liturgy banned elsewhere in the kingdom from market stalls. The cemetery is full of women crouched in mourning aside the colourful shrines of the town’s 23 “martyrs”, piled high with flowers, flags and memorabilia. This is in a kingdom where the ruling Wahhabi creed forbids the veneration of graves as ancestor worship. “You can’t treat the problem with force and prisons and executions. We’ve shut this village down,” says Nimr’s younger brother, Muhammad, whose son, Ali, was imprisoned at the age of 17 and has been sentenced to death.
Some 10% of Saudi citizens are Shia. How angry and alienated they are, outside Awamiya, is unclear. The town has been an exception ever since Nimr’s grandfather led an uprising after the Al Sauds captured eastern Arabia in 1913; it opposed the treaty other Shia notables signed with Abdelaziz, the founder of Saudi Arabia, in 1933. Most Shia follow more mainstream clerics, such as Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Najaf in Iraq, and Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. (So fed up was the latter with Nimr’s ranting against Iran’s theocracy when he lived in Qom, the country’s clerical capital, that he had him locked up.) And while the bonanza from the east’s oilfields has all but passed Awamiyya by, the nearby headquarters of Saudi Aramco, the state oil firm, still hires Shia from neighbouring towns and invests in some development. By their roads one can see only occasional anti-Al Saud graffiti.
But the authorities are taking few chances. At the exits off the highway skirting Shia towns, security personnel man checkpoints and inspect papers. They say they are protecting the Shia from Islamic State’s suicide bombers, who have struck five Shia mosques since late 2014. But since Nimr’s death, many Shia suspect their purpose is more to keep turbulent Shia under control. Most Shia would rather be protected by their own. On Fridays across the Eastern Province, young men in luminous jackets park cars and forklifts in the alleyways leading to mosques, and patrol side-roads on motorbikes, stopping strangers and reporting their finds into walkie-talkies. Shia communal leaders, who kept away from Nimr when he was alive, have trooped to his mourning tent and hailed him as a hero and martyr. “Nimr expressed what was in people’s minds, especially the assault on their dignity,” says Jaffar al-Shayeb, a local Shia politician.
Saudi Arabia’s military support for Sunnis fighting Shia in other countries (and the bellicose cheerleading in the Saudi media) have further inflamed political differences. The kingdom’s decision to sever ties with Iran upset local Shia, who have since been banned from making the trip to Iran’s holy sites. Activists protest the crackdown on social media. “Expression has become a capital offence,” says Nissima al-Sada, an activist who was barred from running in December’s local elections. Reprisals are becoming more violent. Gunmen have shot dead several policemen, and earlier this year torched an Aramco bus.
Sheikh Nimr’s death has made compromise harder, but it is not too late to pull back from the brink. For all the talk of King Salman’s close ties with conservatives, government media profusely condemned IS’s attacks on Shia mosques. His son (and the de facto ruler, Prince Muhammad bin Salman), may bomb Shia rebels in Yemen, but he has no interest in sparking a sectarian civil war at home. A de-escalation of tensions in Syria, too, might soothe tempers back in Saudi Arabia. Even Nimr’s brother supports a strong Saudi presence in the town, provided Shias are treated equally. “We want to be loyal Saudis,” he says. “We tell the government: deal with us politically, not militarily.” Lifting the death sentence that hangs over a reported nine more Shias might be a good start.