“Our dignity is more valuable than the unity of this land … If we don’t get our dignity, then we will have to consider seceding from this country.”
– Sheikh Nimr Baqir Al-Nimr, Saudi Shia religious leader from Al-Awamiya, currently in hiding after having delivered a speech demanding an end to the oppression of Saudi Shiites.
In 2005, the International Crisis Group (ICG) issued a report entitled “The Shiite Question in Saudi Arabia.” The Executive Summary recounted that since the establishment of Saudi Arabia in 1932, “… its minority Shiite population has been subject to discrimination and sectarian incitement.” It detailed how Shiites, the majority in the country’s oil-rich Eastern Province (EP) and accounting for approximately 15-20 percent of the overall population, remained strikingly underrepresented throughout all segments of civil society, including government (in which they essentially have no representation), the public sector, schools, the judiciary, the military and police.
The expression of anti-Shia sentiment in the educational system and limits placed on religious practices were specifically highlighted as problem areas (Shia Islam is not allowed to be taught in schools, only Wahhabism; thus Shiite students must officially identify themselves as ‘heretics’ and ‘infidels’ in order to pass exams).
The ICG made several recommendations in their report including:
- expanding Shiite presence in government institutions
- lifting remaining restrictions on Shiite religious rituals and practices
- encouraging tolerance, eliminating anti-Shiism in mosques and schools, and curbing statements that incite anti-Shiite violence
There was relative calm between the Saudi government and the Shia after King Fahd in 1993 made token promises of easing political restrictions in exchange for the community building closer ties with the regime instead of looking abroad for support and assistance.
The ICG warned though that “King Abdullah needs to act resolutely to improve the lot of the two-million strong Shiite community and rein in domestic expressions of anti-Shiite hostility” or it will be “… a quiet that, without further concrete progress, risks exhausting itself.”
And exhausted itself it has.
With little improvement made, and after the recent violent clashes in the holy city of Medina this past February between Shia pilgrims and the Religious Police (who were found filming female pilgrims), that quiet has officially ended.
Although you would not know it by reading or listening to any of the mainstream Arab media outlets, a violent crackdown is underway in the cities of Al-Awamiya and Qatif in the EP.
On March 13, Sheikh Nimr Baqir Al-Nimr, a leading Shiite cleric from Awamiya, said during Friday prayers that unless the systemic discrimination and oppression of Saudi Shiites at the hands of the political and religious establishments ends, they would consider seceding from the Kingdom. In a subsequent internet posting he is reported to have said, “Our dignity is being held, and if it’s not let free, we will examine other options, and any legitimate option will be examined. We saw with our own eyes how the dissension forces beat up women [in Medina]. Where’s the dignity? Where’s the justice?” (Press TV, 22 March 2009).
Saudi Interior Minister Nayyef Ibn Abdul Aziz, visiting the ailing Crown Prince and Defense Minister, Prince Sultan in New York, immediately ordered his arrest.
Since then, events have turned ugly in both Awamiya and Qatif (where most of the pilgrims involved in the Medina skirmish came from). Despite the Arab media blackout, Saudi dissident and opposition websites such as Rasid.com and Moltaqaa.com, as well as the Saudi Information Agency, have reported on the ensuing clampdown in the hunt for Al-Nimr. By report, the cities’ residents have conducted only peaceful protests and vigils.
Multiple arrests have been made, including juveniles and an American citizen, Nuh Abdul-Jabber, 28. Saudi security forces stormed Awamiya again on March 25, cutting off power to the town of 45,000 for the third time in 10 days. The US State Dept., apparently in deference to the monarchy, has yet to comment on these developments.
Not so Amnesty International, who deplored the detention of men and teenagers by the Saudi authorities whom they believe are at grave risk for torture. Held incommunicado, they called for their immediate and unconditional release.
But why should anyone outside the Middle East be concerned about these events?
Awamiya is located just five miles from Ras Tanurah, the world’s largest offshore oil facility and home to Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil company (any talk of unrest, yet alone secession, is therefore quickly silenced).
Beyond that, according basic political, socioeconomic, cultural and religious rights to all citizens of Saudi Arabia, free from discrimination and oppression, should be everyone’s concern on a purely humanitarian level. Indeed, while the entire Kingdom was silent during Israel’s attack on Gaza, it was only the people of Al-Qatif—clearly recognizing and identifying with another people subjected to injustice and humiliation—who held demonstrations in support of the besieged Palestinians.
Their demand and those of Shiites in other towns and cities in Saudi Arabia is a most basic and simple one. It is a demand the government can easily grant and one they should hasten to accept. It was written on the signs of those protesting in Awamiya, was encapsulated in a single word in Sheikh Al-Nimr’s speech, and has become the newfound rallying cry of the Shia-minority in Saudi Arabia: Dignity.
Rannie Amiri is an independent Middle East commentator. He may be reached at: rbamiri at yahoo dot com.