The Saudi regime is in the midst of an extreme and brutal crackdown against its own citizenry in the country's Eastern province - a situation now spiraling out of control with rising civilian deaths, entire neighborhoods turned to rubble, and new reports that water and electricity have been cut to the now completely besieged town of Al-Awamiya. Though local activists continue to upload shocking ground level videos to social media revealing that entire districts have been leveled, international and US media have remained largely silent.
Tensions have been simmering in the heavily Shia populated Qatif governate throughout the past year, especially after the January execution of prominent Shia cleric and Al-Awamiya native Nimr al-Nimr. Additionally, 14 Shia citizens, among them young Mujtaba al-Sweikat - a student enrolled at Western Michigan University - currently await execution upon the signature of King Salman. The torture and mass trial of the group, charged with "protest-related" crimes has further inflamed tensions in the region. Large protests against the Saudi monarchy and security services have been frequent in Qatif going all the way back to the start of the so-called "Arab Spring" - though major international media outlets have tended to ignore such protests occurring under US/UK friendly regimes.
This was especially the case when in 2011 hundreds of Saudi tanks crossed the King Fahd Causeway to quell a popular uprising against neighboring Bahrain's Sunni monarchy. Western media treated the event as a relatively minor hiccup, with some reports even subtly framing Saudi actions as actually motivated by the protection of civilians from Bahraini security forces, while in reality it was a massive show of force pitting tanks against civilians in order to preserve the embattled Bahraini autocratic regime.
This week, things have escalated dramatically as Saudi authorities have concentrated a barrage of fire on Awamiya's four-hundred year old walled historic Al-Mosara neighborhood, including reported use of air power, heavy artillery, RPGs, snipers and armored assault vehicles in the area. Earlier this year the Saudi regime announced plans to demolish the neighborhood and hand it over to private developers in a kind of Saudi version of "eminent domain"; however, the presence of Shia militants hiding amidst its narrow roads and concealed alleyways appears the be the real motive for razing the district. Though sporadic fighting has occurred throughout the summer, the siege began in the last week of July when bulldozers and armored vehicles poured into the town to initiate demolition while security forces simultaneously attempted to root out Shia militants. Multiple Middle East based news outlets reported at least 5 civilians killed during the initial entry of Saudi forces - online activist accounts are now reporting many dozens slain since the start of the recent incursion.
Screenshot of Al Mayadeen News broadcast footage purporting to show a Saudi soldier firing into Awamiya town from a rooftop.
Before and during the start of the siege local citizens were promised government-sponsored "relocation", though activists describe it as a concealed sectarian-based cleansing of the Shia population, which has been historically persecuted by the Sunni Wahhabi state. Regional news outlets have published footage which they say reveals active sectarian anti-Shia cleansing on the part of Saudi forces currently underway:
Photo purporting to show destruction in Awamiya. Photo source: Albawaba News citing activist social media.
An activist originally from Awamiya named Ameen Nemer told Middle East Eye that there is a conscious effort on the part of the authorities to forcibly change the identity of the town:
What I see from the first day there is a collective punishment... there is a plan for forced displacement. It has nothing to do with Al-Mosara and development, it has to do with punishing this town for being vocal for calling for rights, calling for reforms since 2011.
A press release issued in May by the UN Human Rights Commission responded to previously announced Saudi plans to demolish residential areas for commercial development. The UN statement hints that the town's identity is indeed what is at stake here:
The UN experts warned the development plan for the Al-Masora quarter threatens the historical and cultural heritage of the town with irreparable harm, and may result in the forced eviction of numerous people from their businesses and residences.
UN experts seemed to have forewarned that the the whole initiative would involve forceful evacuation using extreme coercive measures, yet stopped short of condemning the plans outright:
Residents have been pressured in many ways, including through power cuts, to vacate their homes and businesses without adequate alternative resettlement options, leaving them at best with insufficient compensation and at worst, with nowhere to go...
It appears that the demolition has been announced without any meaningful consultation with the residents, and without having considered less damaging alternatives, like restoration, or adequate notice informing them about the demolition plans.
Gunfire as government bulldozers destroy civilian infrastructure: ground footage of Saudi authorities razing Shia neighborhoods in the country's eastern province. Some videos are reportedly being uploaded to personal social media pages by Saudi soldiers themselves to brag about their role in the siege, after which the footage is culled by opposition activists.
And now the assault has reached a violent crescendo. On Thursday Al-Masdr News reported that Saudi regime forces fired upon a civilian bus as it tried to flee Awamiya, killing the bus driver (other unconfirmed reports further mention the wounding of women and children). A Reuters report, however, presented conflicting accounts of the incident, while also attempting to justify the whole brutal siege of Awamiya merely as Saudi security attempting to apprehend "gunmen behind attacks on police." While details and the accuracy of various reports of atrocities are unclear, with activists citing dozens of civilians killed at the hands of the government and state-aligned media claiming Shia fighters have killed multiple police, lack of independent media access has made assessing the day to day situation difficult.
This week, Beirut-based Al Mayadeen News was the first Arabic language satellite broadcaster to feature video footage coming out of besieged Awamiya. The report references military jets flying over the town and shows a uniformed man firing an RPG into an urban area. Saudi opposition activists say the man is a Saudi soldier. View the report with English subtitles here:
Meanwhile, Middle East Eye has obtained a document which activists say is being placed on homes in and around the besieged town. It is a property seizure notice ordering residents to relocate and is stamped by the Saudi government's National Joint Counterterrorism Command (NJCC). It gives instructions on relocation procedures - Middle East Eye cited activists as saying displaced families have yet to be rehoused.
Requisition order stamped by the Saudi National Joint Counterterrorism Command (NJCC) and obtained by Middle East Eye.
Though still not widely reported in US press, the Canadian government has come under fire for providing armored military vehicles that the Saudis may be using in their crackdown against civilians. In 2013 Canada struck its own record breaking deal - worth over $13 billion - to supply Saudi Arabia with an undisclosed number of Light Armored Vehicles manufactured by General Dynamics Land Systems (GDLS).
Last week Canada's The Globe and Mail published an investigative report which found that, "video footage and photos have surfaced on social media allegedly showing the Islamic kingdom using Canadian weaponized equipment against Saudi civilians" specifically as part of the Awamiya assault which resulted in civilian deaths. The report confirmed, based on expert analysis, that Canadian vehicles are being used - though images analyzed showed Gurkha RPVs, made by Terradyne Armored Vehicles (based in Newmarket, Ontario) - and not the General Dynamics vehicles of the 2013 contract. It appears other private companies in Canada have been making their own deals with the Saudi government - all of which are now coming under scrutiny.
Footage out of Awamiya shows Canadian made armored vehicles in civilian neighborhoods.
The report prompted a response by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: "We are looking at these claims very seriously... and have immediately launched a review". Various Canadian parliamentarians have urged the current Liberal government to cancel the contract on the grounds that it allegedly violates Canada's weapons export-control rules. Rights monitoring groups also weighed in. Amnesty International Canada secretary-general Alex Neve called on the government to stop all armored vehicle exports, saying:
Indications that Canadian-made armored vehicles are perhaps being utilized as Saudi forces mobilize in the east of the country highlight how crucial it is that the government intervene and put an immediate end to the Canadian/Saudi LAV deal.
The US and UK remain Saudi Arabia's largest suppliers of advanced weaponry and have a long history of turning a blind eye to human rights abuses. Ironically, the kingdom's increasingly restive Shia population is concentrated in an eastern region which produces much of the world's oil. In 2012, a pipeline explosion possibly at the hands of Shia militants in the same region, caused the price of crude to momentarily rocket upward on fears that the "Arab Spring" had entered the oil-rich province.
It's been widely acknowledged that since Saudi Arabia's founding, Shia citizens have been marginalized on religious grounds by the official Wahhabi state religion which sees them as heretics in league with Iranian interests, especially since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Saudi Shia communities have been perpetual historic flashpoint areas witnessing cycles of protests, shootings, mass detentions, and long-term economic neglect. Demonstrations have long been banned throughout all of Saudi Arabia - a fact rarely highlighted in Western press reports.
Currently, unconfirmed reports issued by Iran-aligned media claim Yemeni opposition fighters have sacked Saudi bases and small outposts in the southwestern Jizan region, inflicting troop casualties on Saudi soil for the first time. While Qatif in the east spirals out of control, blowback from Saudi Arabia's two year long air war on Yemen is looking increasingly likely.
As we've reported recently in Saudi Arabia’s March Towards Civil War combined tensions and fissures at multiple levels of the Saudi state, including within the royal family itself, are nearing a breaking point. Could this latest round of extreme measures against Shia dissent - which appear increasingly desperate and are now going public - mark the beginning of a permanently fractured kingdom?