The Saudi town of Awamiyah is nothing short of a war zone after the regime's heavy crackdown on Shia citizens. Critics believe the harsh tactics reveal the regime's desperation following heavy defeats abroad.
TIME CODE: 00:00_05:00
Narration: This is Sajjaad Mohamed Abu Abdallah, a Shia Muslim child from the Saudi town of Awamiyah. He is no longer able to play with his friends. Sajjad recently lost his life after spending two months in intensive care for bullet wounds. He became one of the victims of the Saudi regime’s clampdown on the minority Shia population in Awamiyah. The bloody suppression has been intensified in recent months but has received little coverage in mainstream media. The Saudi regime has tried hard to stifle the flow of information about the scale of devastation and shocking conditions faced by civilians in the area. But after months of military operations in the city, a horrific image has emerged of the extent of regime brutality against its own citizens. What has happened in Awamiyah is a painful reminder of what the autocratic regime of Saudi Arabia is capable of, when it comes to silencing the dissent and religious minorities. It also exposes how Western support in exchange for Saudi petrodollars has emboldened the unelected rulers in Riyadh who are notorious for rights violations at home and destabilizing policies in the region and beyond.
This is neither the Syrian city of Aleppo torn apart by war, nor the Iraqi city of Mosul recently retaken from the Daesh terrorist group. This is the Saudi town of Awamiyah which lies in the Qatif region of oil-rich Eastern Province. The warzone-like town has almost become uninhabitable now. Several months of siege, military operations, heavy bombardments and demolitions by regime forces have eliminated entire neighborhoods and forced thousands of their residents to flee.
SOUNDBITE [English] Imam Hassan Qazwini, Founder, Islamic Institute of America: “It's a ruined city, they demolished homes, businesses, houses of worship, Masajid, Husseiniyahs, twenty thousand people were forced to evacuate their homes and go nowhere. Twenty thousand Shia Muslims in Awamiyah have lost their homes.”
Narration: Shia-populated Qatif region has seen widespread anti-regime protests since 2011 when the Arab world was rocked by pro-democracy protests. The regime has taken every opportunity to carry out raids in the area and arrest rights activists. Back in May the regime took its crackdown to a whole new level. Authorities issued orders to demolish and redevelop Awamiyah’s ancient neighborhood of al-Musawara. Authorities claimed terrorists and drug dealers were using abandoned houses and narrow streets in the neighborhood as hideouts. The redevelopment plan drew condemnation from the United Nations which slammed the regime for failing to offer adequate resettlement options to Awamiyah residents. The UN also voiced concern about historical and cultural heritage of the town. The local population which deeply distrusts Riyadh refused to leave. The regime laid a siege on the town, deployed heavy weapons and began shelling and demolitions leaving dozens dead. Latest satellite imagery of the area has shocked observers. It shows the extent of destruction caused during Saudi regime operations. Observers firmly believe that the Saudi rulers sought to eliminate the key center of Shia opposition for good under the guise of a redevelopment plan.
SOUNDBITE [English] Riaz Karim, Director, Veritas Center for Strategic Studies:
“If it is about redevelopment, then why not relocate people peacefully? Give them ample warnings, and then do it that way instead of shooting them at site. So this is definitely not about redevelopment.”
Narration: Qatif and especially Awamiyah are home to outspoken critics of the regime and prominent Shia human rights activists. Ayatollah Nimr Baqer Al-Nimr, who was executed in 2016 over his fierce criticism of Saudi policies, also lived in Awamiyah.
TIME CODE: 05:00_09:40
Narration: The crackdown in Awamiyah comes as the Saudi Royal family is still struggling to come to terms with humiliating foreign policy failures. Many of the defeats abroad are being blamed on Crown prince Mohammed bin Salman who is now considered the de facto ruler of the kingdom given his father’s poor health. The young crown prince has a reputation for recklessness, and some even inside the Kingdome blame many Saudi problems on his miscalculations. From the war in Yemen to the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, Saudis have suffered set back after setback. The war in Yemen has become a nightmare for the monarchy. The Saudi onslaught began in March 2015 under the orders of bin Salman. Top military officials had predicted a quick victory. Riyadh sought to reinstate its stalwart ally former President Abd Rabouh Mansour Hadi and defeat popular fighters in a matter of a few months. But things have not gone as predicted by the royal family and the Saudi war machine remains virtually stuck in Yemen. The humanitarian catastrophe in the impoverished country has further piled pressure on Saudi Arabia. And in Syria, the Saudi royal family is emerging as the biggest loser. Militants long backed by Riyadh are losing ground to the Syrian army and its allied forces at an unprecedented pace. The current trend of war in Syria is seriously threatening to send all Saudi plans against the Syrian government up in smoke. Observers believe the rulers in Riyadh chose to intensify their crackdown on the kingdom’s Shia population because they felt deeply insecure and isolated.
SOUNDBITE [English] Riaz Karim, Director, VERITAS Center for Strategic Studies: “Now that Syria is almost over, and Iraq is almost over, (they're just dealing with the remnants and the leftovers), I think it is time for them to concentrate at home. Hence Awamiyah is happening.”
Narration: Some believe the destruction of Awamiyah is being done out of desperation, and fear of opposition calls for democracy and change in the autocratic system. The monarchy in the Arab World’s richest kingdom is apparently too afraid to even hold any kind of dialog with the opposition.
But where does the sense of insecurity among the Saudi royals stem from? Most probably their lack of legitimacy. Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy which does not allow any national elections and lacks any deep rooted popular base. When several Arab countries were gripped by popular uprisings in 2011, former King Abdullah’s response was to spend 130 billion on salaries and social programs to appease the public. The Saudi rulers lack support from inside the Kingdome and that’s why they spend heavily to buy allies abroad.
SOUNDBITE [English] Riaz Karim, Director, VERITAS Center for Strategic Studies: “The House of Saud is basically a house of cards, that is the reason they don't like any kind of activism, they don't like any kind of dissent, and as soon as they see that something is remotely about to happen, people are arrested, thrown in jail and sentenced to death.”
Narration: Increasingly hostile Saudi policies have been alienating people at home and are harming nations in the region. But Western weapons manufacturers have been benefitting enormously from all this. Saudi Arabia has been spending heavily on U-S and British made weapons and funneling some of them to militant groups in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. That has seen a large increase under King Salman. Just a few months ago, Saudi Arabia signed a 110 billion dollar arms contract with the United States. Back in May, right when U-S President Donald Trump was inking the deal, Saudi forces were engaged in operations in Awamiyah. But business-minded Trump never brought up the issue of rights violations in Saudi Arabia. Observers around the world have warned about the dangerous trend in which Saudi rulers use their petro dollars to buy Western support, and diplomatic cover for their human rights violations and serious breaches of international law. They say the muted response from the international community has already emboldened Saudi despotic rulers and encouraged them to use the deadly weapons supplied by their Western allies against their own people as well as people of Yemen, Arab world's poorest nation.