Tension in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province – After the execution, the kingdom’s Shia are angry
Mar 19th 2016 Economist
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 Shia on charges of treachery and inciting terrorism, Awamiya 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 liturgies banned elsewhere in the kingdom. 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.
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 1932. Most Shia follow more mainstream clerics, such as Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf in Iraq, and Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei.
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 six 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. 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.
Saudi Arabia’s military support for Sunnis fighting Shia in other countries has further inflamed matters. The kingdom’s decision to sever ties with Iran upset local Shia, who have been banned from visiting Iran’s holy sites. Activists protest 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 getting violent. Gunmen have shot dead several policemen, and earlier this year torched a bus belonging to Aramco, the state oil firm.
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, state media sternly condemned IS’s attacks on Shia mosques. A lessening 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 Shia 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 Shia might be a good start.