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The Siege of Al-Awamia: Sectarianism in Saudi Arabia

June 21, 2017

The town of Al-Awamia, situated in the eastern Saudi province of Al-Qatif, is under a dire blockade, enforced by the Saudi army since last month. The province of Al-Qatif is home to a large Shiite population, and, following the execution of Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr along with 46 prisoners last year, tensions in the region still remain quite dense. The province of Al-Qatif, contrary to other regions of the peninsula, is opponent to the Saudi regime, where intense demonstrations against the regime is not a rare occurrence. This strategically key region, which has one of the most important ports of the country that opens to the Persian Gulf, has been subject to violent repressions.

The repression of Shiite population in Al-Qatif is not a new occurrence, as the residents of the province have experienced, since 1913, multiple forms of violence, which intensified further after 1970s. When Al-Qatif was occupied by the Wahhabite Emirate of Ryad, the predominantly Shite population of the region started to experience some repressions that worsened as the time passed. The arbitrary detention and often unlawful persecution of the population by the Saudi regime stirred powerful demonstrations in Al-Qatif, the scale of which considerably increased with the Arab Spring of 2010. Especially, the protests on December 2012 were particularly invincible. The International Amnesty Organisation, as a result, called for the liberation of detainees for easing tensions.

The epicentre of protests in Al-Qatif was the town of Al-Awamia, which has a symbolic importance for the Shiite population, as it is the birth place of influential cleric Nimr al-Nimr. The execution of al-Nimr, along with 49 other people, marked the climax of manifests against the Saudi authorities in the city. Moreover, Al-Qatif is also home to a very rich oil reservoir; and the largest oil refinery of the Kingdom is within the borders of this strategically significant province, whose port is the principal way for the exportation of Saudi oil. Despite its oil reserves, Al-Qatif is left underdeveloped, and the standard of life in this province is very low in comparison to the other regions of the country. Sectarianism is one of the reasons for Al-Qatif’s low life standards. For example, Aramco, the Saudi Oil Company, pays Shiite workers less than what it pays for Sunnis.

In February 2014, the Saudi regime, under the cover of ‘fight against terrorism’, put in place a law that targets each manifestation of discontent in regard to the political system. ‘Expression of atheist thoughts’ or ‘questioning of Islam’ is also considered, by this law, to be crime. Shiite population of the country is especially threatened by this terror law, since Saudi authorities regard Shia branch as a perversion of Islam. Human Rights Watch, in a report published in 2009, invited Saudi authorities to end arbitrary detention and systematic discrimination of Shias in the country. Shias, who live principally in the provinces of Al-Qatif and Al-Ahsa, are also deterred from holding a public office, and they are arbitrarily detained and harassed by the security forces.

The town of Al-Awamia, where approximately thirty-thousand people live, is blocked by the Saudi soldiers. This enclosure, started on 10 May 2017, transformed the town into an open-air prison. With the excuse of ‘renovation’, Saudi authorities closed the town with concrete blocks and armoured vehicles. Saudi forces treat the local population violently in the blocked town, where power outages already render life very difficult. Saudi forces indiscriminately open fire and target residents of the city. ‘The forces of security does not hesitate to shoot when they see a person on the window or roof’, tells a resident to the French channel France 24. ‘The city is a true theatre of guerrilla, the bullets don’t stop flying around. The security forces burn houses and cars. The activists, who are searched in the quarter, reply with their kalashnikovs,’ described a resident the situation when the blockade started. Since May 10, however, situation did not improve. Security forces organise severe raids in the schools and houses, and they continue to fire on residents. This grave blockade seems to be under-reported in the Western media.

While the hospitals stopped functioning in the town, garbage collection is also interrupted. Everything, in the sieged Al-Awamia, seems to pass against even the Saudi law. Relatives of the illegally executed activists cannot file a plaint, as their connection to the outside world is forcefully cut. Saudi regime, for cowing the population and covering the violation of its own citizens’ rights, increases the violence of its operations in the town.

The fact that the United States, during the visit of American President Trump to the Kingdom, sold 350 billion dollar worth of guns to Saudi Arabia shows to what extent the West is determined to turn a blind eye to Saudi regime’s brutal repression of its own citizens. British Prime Minister Theresa May, on the other hand, declares Britain’s willingness to become the best ally of Saudi Arabia under the pretext of ‘helping them reform’.

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