The marginalization of the Eastern Province residents extends to all aspects of their lives: political, cultural, economic, and social.
What brought people together can be summarized by three demands: freedom and equality, as inalienables right enshrined in the UN Universal Declaration for Human Rights; the release of prisoners arrested after the Khobar Towers attack in 1996; and the withdrawal of the Peninsula Shield Force from Bahrain.
Over the past few months, the streets have continued to fill with protesting youths. The people of Qatif refuse to use weapons despite the Saudi police’s use of live ammunition and tear gas to disperse protests.
Arab media, specifically in the Gulf, ignored the events. However, social media sites began to fill the gap, allowing activists to share harsh criticism of the “criminality of the Sauds.”
The mobilization took a sharp turn when Nasser al-Mahishi became the uprising’s first casualty on 20 November 2011. Following news of his death and the refusal of Saudi authorities to deliver his body to his family, tensions began to rise. The environs of Qatif and Awamiyah witnessed huge demonstrations demanding an end to the detentions and killings of Eastern Province residents.
The second crucial event was the arrest of Sheikh Nimr Nimr, the imam at Awamiyah mosque, who called late Saudi Prince Nayef Bin Abdul-Aziz (who was crown prince at the time) a “tyrant” in one of his sermons. The arrest of Nimr provoked thousands to take to the streets chanting, “Death to the Sauds.”
The repression following those protests released all “the anger that dwelled in our hearts for years.” These are the words of Miriam, a human rights activist who spoke to Al-Akhbar anonymously out of “fear of persecution and harm at work.”
According to a Qatif resident who has been documenting the abuses of the Saudi regime for many years, members of the sovereign family “still control the beaches. They go into deals with specialized companies to reclaim the sea, build residential compounds, and sell them to the local residents at inflated prices.”
Citizens of this area feel that a great injustice has been committed against the rich sea life on their coasts by the oil projects of Aramco. Dozens of ancient springs in Ihsa are now dry due to governmental negligence and the conversion of the waterways into oil wells.
It should be noted that only a handful of Shia were ever accorded positions in Aramco, a pillar of Saudi Arabia’s economy. “In the diplomatic corps for example, Shia are forbidden from working at embassies,” explained Jaafar, a former government employee from Qatif, now in his 50s.
“The government never gave a high position to a Shia, except once when Jamil al-Jishi was appointed ambassador for a period of four years, but it was not renewed,” he said.
Jaafar, who preferred not to mention his family name, said that the Sauds “forbid Shia from senior positions in the state, even middle positions. They are also denied the right of joining security agencies, whether the National Guard, the police, or the border guards.”
The Saudi rulers also impose restrictions on cultural activities. For example, the Saudi media ministry forbids Shia from owning publishing houses.
“It even bans Shia religious books,” explained Fatima, a blogger from Qatif. She said she was once discovered by the authorities, who sent her a “warning message.”
Restrictions on Shia Social Life
The Saudi government imposes a virtual ban on the establishment of wedding halls in the Eastern Province, fearing that they will be used for opposition activities against the government.
The ban was responsible for a major fire in 1999 in the small town of Qudaih in Qatif, which killed dozens of women and children in a makeshift wedding tent. Following the incident, the government allowed the construction of some wedding halls.
As for justice, there are two courts in Ihsa and Qatif devoted to Shia that handle issues of marriage, divorce, and inheritance. Shia in other areas of the Kingdom are forced to refer to Wahhabi courts, according to a Qatif cleric.
Fatima, who used to be a teacher, talked about the inequality in the educational sector. “A few months ago, the first Shia woman was appointed as a director,” she said. “The joy we feel could not be described.”
“For the past 30 years, the Saudi Ministry of Education had imposed a ban on Shia female teachers. But no reason was given for their denial of the position of administrator or commissioner,” Fatima added.
Mohammed al-Qahtani, a young man from Qatif spoke of the dire situation. “The Saudi government strives to ignore our issues. It claims we are sectarian and have external agendas, which is untrue,” he explained.
“They accuse us of being followers of Iran or that we are Persian. This is pure fabrication. I am an Arab and the son of an Arab and I will not accept this distortion,” he added. “The Saudi authorities arrested the signatories of a statement by a group of intellectuals and lawyers. By the way, many of them were Sunni. The statement called for an international investigation of Qatif and Jeddah prisons.”
Justice by Numbers
A report from the Adala Center for Human Rights indicates that Saudi authorities have detained more than 600 persons since the protests began in 2011. While most have been released, around 149 individuals remain in prison.
According to the report, security forces have shot dead seven people and wounded 36. The report protested against “several claims of torture against detainees in the General Intelligence Prison in Dammam.”
The report adds that “these cases included beating, kicking, electric shocks in sensitive parts of the body, hitting with hoses and being forced to stand with hands up for long hours.”
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.