As the United States prepared to sign a multi-billion dollar arms deal with Saudi Arabia, royal forces laid siege to al-Awamiya, a restive town of approximately 30,000 in the Qatif district of the country’s Eastern Province. Bulldozers, backed by armored tanks and helicopter gunships, systemically leveled homes and put entire families on the street in the historic Mosawara neighborhood. This came under the guise of a development and "renovation" project for the long-neglected and impoverished city although the regime saw fit to post doctored images of allegedly captured weapons to imply was also a security operation.
Last month, anticipating such a move, United Nations experts on poverty, culture and housing rights, " … called on the Government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to immediately halt the planned demolition of a 400-year-old walled neighborhood in the village of Awamia. 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.
"The area is of importance not only to local people and the entire cultural landscape of Awamia, but also has national significance for the history and cultural heritage of Saudi Arabia," said the UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, Karima Bennoune. "The planned demolition would erase this unique regional heritage in an irreversible manner." As the report makes clear, the project did not provide for the construction of residential buildings in place of those destroyed.
Awamiya was home to the late Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, the fiery cleric who nonetheless peacefully demanded equal rights for the marginalized, oppressed Saudi Shia community. He was ultimately executed by the government in January 2016 after his capture in July 2012. Awamiya is no stranger to aggression, but this past week’s attack and ongoing siege is a new escalation by those yet to be satiated by the killing of Sheikh al-Nimr.
The city’s planned "development" was marked by blocking ambulance access, cordoning off entrance to Mosawara with concrete barriers, cutting power and shooting at residents. As one said, "It is really painful to demolish a historic and archaeological city like Almosara whose lifespan extends for hundreds of years. Some people who want to close their eyes to the truth and are not affected by the demolition will believe in the lie of development."
The action comes on the heels of an interview by deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s interview on state television in which he vowed to take the country’s standoff with Tehran inside of Iran’s borders. The offensive was still against Shia Muslims but instead within Saudi borders and the victims his fellow citizens.
It is erroneous and somewhat simplistic to frame the assault strictly in sectarian terms or as a move to appease the religious establishment’s anti-Shia proclivities. Rather, it was meant to send a message to all in the Kingdom of the fate of those who would oppose the authority and the legitimacy of the monarchy. It was to widen the narrow streets of Mosawara to allow tanks easy passage for future operations. It was a reminder to those in the Qatif who might still be emboldened by Sheikh Nimr’s famous declaration, "A century of oppression … enough, we will not be silent and we will not fear. We will call for separation even from this country and let be what will be. Our dignity is dearer than the unity of this land."
Most importantly, it was to demonstrate that even when the President of the United States visits Saudi Arabia to speak about combating extremism, the regime itself can be extremist without consequence or reproach.
Yemeni towns have been the subject of an endless bombing campaign at the hands of the Saudi government resulting in mass casualties, widespread destruction of civilian infrastructure and rampant malnutrition. Poor villages outside of Manama, Bahrain have withered under the pervasive repression of their allies, the al-Khalifa dynasty. Now another has joined their ranks.
Rannie Amiri is an independent commentator on Middle East affairs.