The biggest mistake we could make when looking at the unrest in al-Awamiyah, is to exclusively view what took place through a sectarian lens. The story is far more complex than that!
For those who did not follow the story, a group of people living in al-Awamiyah, close to the al-Qatif region in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province – which is a Shiite majority area – clashed with Saudi security forces last week. In what represents a rare occurrence in Saudi Arabia, some members of this group threw Molotov cocktails and opened fire on a police station, injuring 11 security officers and three bystanders. The attackers were reported to have chanted revolutionary slogans.
For its part, the Saudi Interior Ministry took the rare step of issuing a statement explaining precisely what had happened, and warning that Riyadh would not tolerate any transgression of Saudi security and stability. The statement also claimed that the attackers were acting on behalf of a “foreign country”, meaning Iran.
Those who sympathized with the al-Awamiyah attackers, or attempted to play down what happened, justified this by claiming that Saudi Arabia’s Shiites face arrest or detention or sectarian discrimination. Indeed, discussions soon moved away from the actual incident to the issue of sectarianism and legal rights.
As I have said above, by becoming involved in such arguments, we fall into a theoretical black hole.
The question that must be asked here is: does confronting those who open fire on the police or throw Molotov cocktails represent a form of sectarian discrimination? Did the Saudi security forces confront this group merely because they were Shiite? Or was this because they had taken up arms and broken the law?
Weren’t the clashes between the Saudi security forces and [Sunni] al-Qaeda elements over the past decade fiercer and more violent than the confrontation with the al-Awamiyah youth? What about the countless detainees behind held in Saudi Arabia on charges relating to Al Qaeda affiliated and activity?
Why then confine what happened in al-Awamiyah to the realm of sectarianism?
This is due to the tense regional situation. Iran is entangled in this tense regional situation due to the difficulty its ally, the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, finds itself in, and Iran – and Bashar al-Assad’s – belief that the Gulf States, particularly Saudi Arabia, are responsible for leading the campaign against the Damascus regime. For every action there is a reaction, and one of the most effective reactions – from their point of view –would be to incite the Gulf Shiites to riot and open old wounds.
We have seen Iran opportunistically playing the “sectarian” card a number of times.
We often read about Iran’s “capabilities” within our region, whilst Iranian officials have announced that there are a numbers of ways that they can exert pressure on their opponents in the region. They carried out a “dress rehearsal” for this in Iraq, utilizing parties loyal to them to put pressure on Kuwait, against the backdrop of the Mubarak Al-Kabeer Port issue.
Are the youth of al-Awamiyah aware of all of this? Or are they too immersed in the revolutionary teachings of [Iranian cleric] “Al-Madrassi, in the same manner that Al Qaeda fighters were previously involved in similar slogans?
This is part of a clear confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Whoever is concerned with the issue of citizenship, sectarian tolerance and civil rights should put these issues aside and withdraw them from the debate. If they do not, they are only serving to harm these legitimate issues, not to mention exhibit their political naiveté.
Fortunately, the al-Awamiyah rioters represent a minority of the Shiite community. This is because the followers of the revolutionary Shirazi and al-Madrassi trends are comparatively few, in contrast to the adherents of traditional Shiite ideology.
So we shouldn’t hesitate to say that what happened was a result of Iran stirring up old issue. As for ways of handling this issue – among other political, cultural, and social issues – that is a purely Saudi Arabian affair. It has its own ebb and flow, like any other issue. Positive steps have been taken towards achieving a real breakthrough with regards to the sectarian issue during the reign of King Abdullah, and this is something that can be seen by all impartial observers.
This is one thing, but dealing with Iran’s games is something else. There is no time for hesitation or a lack of seriousness; this must be dealt with as seriously as the Al Qaeda network and its sympathizers.