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The Saudi security forces are pulling back in troubled parts of the oil-rich country’s Eastern Province to avoid further confrontation with Shia protesters, say human rights activists, but they warn that any small incident might provoke fresh clashes.
Saudi police and soldiers had previously been besieging the Shia town of al-Awamiyah which was the scene of shooting and riots earlier in the week. The Saudi Interior Ministry had accused protesters of carrying arms and throwing Molotov cocktails from motorcycles which they used to circumvent police checkpoints. It also alleged that they were directed by an unnamed foreign country – which in Saudi official terminology invariably means Iran.
Hamza al-Hassan, an opponent of the Saudi regime who comes from Safwa town in Eastern province, said yesterday that “so far as I know the security presence in al-Awamiyah was reduced dramatically last night”. Since Sunday there have been clashes around the police station at the centre of al-Awamiyah, a Shia town, sparked off by the arrest of the 60-year-old father of one activist wanted by the police. Video shows at last one police car on fire and young men with their headdresses wrapped round their heads to hide their identity.
Mr Hassan said that the extreme language of the Interior Ministry statement in Tuesday admitting to the riots and announcing that the state would use “the iron fist” against protesters had gone down badly in Saudi Arabia and created a backlash. He believes that the statement “was likely to inflame the situation by accusing all Shia of being Iranian puppets”.
There are an estimated two million Shia in Saudi Arabia, or about 10 per cent of the 23 million population, who have always been victims of discrimination so wide-ranging that it resembles apartheid against blacks in South Africa. Shia are denied access to top jobs in all walks of life and even prevented from becoming head teachers at schools teaching Shia children. Wahabite clerics, representing the predominant fundamentalist and puritan variant of Islam predominant in the Kingdom, denounce Shia as heretics. Shia festivals are often banned and the giving of distinctively Shia names to children is discouraged. In the oil city of Dammam there is reportedly only one Shia mosque for 150,000 Shia.
Mr Hassan said that the most important Shia cleric in al-Awamiyah, Nimr al-Nimr, had sought to calm things down yesterday by giving a sermon, telling young men “we will fight with words not arms”. But at the same time Mr Hassan warned that “any small situation might inflame the [wider] situation again”.
The spread of the Arab Awakening to the Shia minority of Saudi Arabia is important because they are concentrated in the region which hold the world’s largest oil reserves. One Saudi human rights organiser points out that the pipeline carrying six million barrels a day of crude to the oil terminal at Ras Tanura passes through al-Awamiyah where there have been clashes for the past four days.
Patrick Cockburn is the author of Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.