The current political and social climate of the Middle East, that of uncertainty, conflict, distrust and ultimately, fear, is intrinsically tied to continued efforts by the Saudi Arabian administration to maintain their hegemony over the region. Being a government reliant on the maintenance of the current status quo, Saudi rulers place a great deal of emphasis on and allocate a significant amount of their resources to aggressively eliminating groups and influences deemed as potentially destabilizing threats. This is accomplished by the regime, domestically, through a consistent exertion of extreme social control over its own citizenry, employing strict censorship of media and utilizing police and security forces to stifle groups deemed in opposition to the persistence of the Kingdom’s current political reality.
Despotic in nature, the Saudi government fears the tumultuous influence of revolutionary ideologies, such as those exported by Iran, through its Revolutionary Council, and those located at a more grassroots level, inspired by the events of the Arab Spring. To combat these influences on a regional level, the Saudi government aggressively exports its own conservative influence across the region, emphasizing its role in Islam as caretakers of Mecca and Medina as well as boosting its own potential as a martial and political power through the purchase of military hardware from the West. While the flexing of this weaponize muscle has typically been constrained to within the boundaries of Saudi Arabia, crushing dissent with little mercy, the Saudi government’s growing confidence has emboldened them to leave the relative safety of their borders to engage directly with foreign ideological threats.
Since early 2015, Saudi Arabia has participated in armed conflict in the south of the Arabian Peninsula, intervening in Yemen to support the pro-Saudi government in suppressing an uprising by Houthi Rebels. This conflict in itself acts as a microcosm of the conflict encompassing the wider Middle East. The Houthis, a predominantly Shi’a Muslim militant group supported by Iran maintains a revolutionary ideology and seeks to establish an Islamic Republic in Yemen a la their benefactor, with the Saudi government supporting the presidency of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, rallying a coalition of predominantly Sunni-majority nations to jointly intervene and restore his government to power. It is this religious division that the Saudi regime has attempted to exploit, highlighting the Sunni-Shi’a split as the distinguishing factor in regional politics. In doing so, the Saudi administration rationalizes viewing the Shi’a Muslim community with suspicion, declaring them as mere proxies of Iran, their regional rival. Having done so, the Saudi regime can, without much opposition, target groups in a manner which consolidates their dominance and continued existence. This is a tactic that has been employed both regionally, through funding of Sunni militant groups and direct intervention and domestically, most notably in the Eastern Province of the country.
Earlier this week, citizens of al-Awamiya, a town located in the eastern Saudi governance of Qatif, fled into the surrounding area, in an attempt to avoid a recent outbreak of violence in the area, resulting from recent Saudi military operation. Looking closer at the events unfolding in this town reflects the strategies favoured by the Saudi regime; suppression of information, opposition and the employment of indiscriminate violence.
Hundreds of civilians have been forced to flee al-Awamiya due to intensifying clashes between the Saudi armed forces and local, Shi’a fighters. Asylum has been offered by local authorities, with the governor of Qatif, Falah al-Khalidi, being quoted by al-Hayat – Saudi Arabia’s national news service – as having stated that “Contracts have been signed for a number of furnished apartments in the city of Dammam to shelter those interested in leaving neighbourhoods near al-Musawara.” However, this claim of readily available assistance comes shortly after the UN accused Saudi Arabia of attempting to forcibly remove residents of al-Awamiya without providing resettlement options. Appeals continue to be made on social media for individuals in the surrounding region to open their doors to those displaced by the fighting, contradicting the degree to which government-provisioned shelter is actually available. Furthermore, according to Ameen Nemer, a local activist, a worrying number of civilians continue to remain trapped within the city, unable to leave, not due to fighting, but a block on vehicular and foot traffic in and out of the city imposed by the Saudi military. This blockade has also been extended to emergency vehicles attempting to enter the area, resulting in both a jeopardization of rescue operations and the unfortunate loss of many homes and businesses to fire. Residents who have successfully exited the neighbourhood also report that energy and water supplies have been switched off, leaving many to rely on private generators and collected rainwater.
Saudi security forces entered the region in May of this year in response to alleged attacks on government workers present in the area. These workers were participating in a controversial redevelopment project for the city’s oldest neighbourhood, al-Musawara, which involved the demolishing of many of the area’s 400-year old structures. While the government claims these measures are being taken so as to modernize the region, many local residents feel it is an expression of dominance by the Sunni-led government over the Shi’a-majority Eastern Province. The recent outbreak of violence is in a response to a renewed effort by Saudi forces to demolish the city’s old quarter, who claim that the area’s narrow side-streets have been facilitating the escape of militants and that, what security forces label as “terrorists,” have been launching attacks from abandoned structures in the neighbourhood. Many civilians have been killed since this latest bout of violence, many, according to local activists, due to indiscriminate shelling and gunfire by government forces.
Tensions have been high in the region since 2009, when Shi’a cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, of Qatif, was arrested and executed under charges of conspiring against the state. However, according to Amnesty International, this was merely a “Part of a campaign by the authorities in Saudi Arabia to crush all dissent, including those defending the rights of the Kingdom’s Shi’a Muslim community.” With the spread of the Arab Spring across the Middle East in 2011, peaceful demonstrations calling for equality between Sunni and Shi’a citizens became commonplace in the region. The rise in vocal opposition inflamed the Saudi rulers, who dispatched military forces to violently to suppress these rallies. Thus, many living in the region feel that the push to demolish the historically important al-Musawara neighbourhood is merely an attempt by the regime to punish the Shi’a community for their perceived defiance and remind them of their position as second-class citizens.
These events reflect a wider, regional campaign of misinformation and suppression by the Saudi authorities, who hope to stifle social progress and maintain their position and wealth. Solutions to this campaign are difficult to put into place, largely due to the West’s heavy reliance on Saudi oil. However, the Saudi economy is, according to a 2017 CIA report on the country, almost completely reliant on oil exports. Considering the Saudi regime’s power is derived from their wealth, threatening its source, particularly through unilateral economic sanctions, could compel them to participate in regional politics in a more widely acceptable manner and force them to be accountable for behaviour that would not be tolerated by the international community otherwise. Sanctions such as these have been successful in the region in the past, such as those levied against Iran which prompted the government to come to an agreement regarding its nuclear enrichment program. Furthermore, the international community should challenge itself to display greater levels of restraint in making sales of military equipment to the Kingdom. While this could impact industry performance, it must be noted that ultimately, these weapons are used in campaigns against ethno-religious minorities in the region.
This view is shared by other states in the region, namely, Qatar, whose failure to align itself with the dominant Saudi political paradigm, as well as its advocacy of freedom of the press and relative liberalism, had prompted Saudi Arabia to gather its regional allies and thrust an ultimatum upon Qatar. Many of the demands made revolved around Qatar’s relationship with Iran and Shi’a groups in the region, and Qatari support of alternative, uncensored news media. With the international community failing to rally behind to the Saudi-led group, they were compelled to lighten their demands – a display which exposes their inability to operate with any longevity without continued and explicit external backing.
Pushes for modernization and equality across the Middle East, including within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, have encouraged the Saudi regime to aggressively suppress their detractors through fear campaigns and violence. This has contributed to the continued destabilization of the region and harsh crackdowns on both groups and individuals who express dissatisfaction with the current status quo. While the current international framework impedes the solving of this issue due to global reliance on Saudi oil, shifts toward renewable energy sources may provide the impetus for Western nations to enforce economic policies which encourage the Saudi administration to operate with increased leniency and transparency. Until the threat of Saudi totalitarianism is effectively managed by the international community, the Middle East will remain a precarious and volatile region. As the Saudi regime manipulates regional politics to maintain its power-base, it spreads fear, hate and violence, all the while stifling diplomacy, equality and freedom for the population of the region, and beyond.
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