WASHINGTON ― Saudi Arabia is engaged in an unprecedented domestic military operation that has worsened sectarian tensions long ignored by Washington, raising concerns about Western support for the U.S.-friendly government the Trump administration has pulled especially close and the ripple effect the crackdown may have on an already fractured Middle East.
Since May 10, two weeks before President Donald Trump’s high-profile visit to the kingdom, Saudi security forces seeking to demolish a 400-year-old neighborhood have been battling a small group of armed resisters ― leading to civilian deaths, including that of a three-year-old boy on Wednesday.
The demolition plan, targeting the historic heart of the volatile Eastern Province town of Awamiya, was developed with little local input. Saudi authorities forced families out by cutting off their electricity and hustling them out of their homes with compensation they see as inadequate, United Nations experts and activists say.
Ongoing fighting in the largely closed-off town means residents now feel unable to even leave their homes for fear of being shot, said Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch.
The Canadian government is investigating claims that Canadian-made military equipment has been used in the Saudi campaign. But the U.S. position on the violence remains unclear: a State Department spokesperson referred HuffPost to the Saudi Arabian government for comment, without issuing a statement of concern as the agency often does regarding violence abroad (and as Canada has done).
A spokesperson with the Defense Department did the same, providing no clarity on whether U.S.-trained Saudi units or U.S.-provided weapons or supplies were used in the crackdown.
A representative for the Saudi Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.
The Saudi campaign has particular importance for the broader Muslim world because it pits a government dominated by the Sunni branch of Islam against citizens who follow the Shiite school.
Conflict between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, often encouraged by Sunni Saudi leaders and Iran’s Shiite rulers, has torn apart the Middle East ― fueling the rise of groups like the self-proclaimed Islamic State, which purports to defend Sunnis, and violent Iran-backed militias, which claims to represent vulnerable, outnumbered Shiites. (Shiites comprise some 15 percent of the world’s Muslim population.)
Both the State Department and the U.S. government’s Commission on International Religious Freedom have acknowledged Saudi Arabia’s discrimination against its domestic Shiite community, which forms roughly 10-15 percent of the country’s population of 28 million.
But the repression is particularly striking now, as the kingdom adopts a more activist foreign policy, risking larger confrontations with Iran, and as Washington hopes to stabilize the region following the expected collapse of the ISIS caliphate.
For their part, the Saudis have tried to win approval from Washington and the region by presenting themselves as moderate ― opposed to Iran and its regional proxies but not all Shiites. Last month, Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman hosted a top Iraqi Shiite leader, Moqtada Al-Sadr, a move one U.S. official described to HuffPost this week as hugely significant for keeping Shiite majority Iraq in the American orbit.
And Brett McGurk, the top American envoy for the anti-ISIS effort, recently praised the Saudis for improving their ties with Iraq; the two countries recently opened their land border for the first time in 27 years.
Experts on the region have long warned that U.S.-aligned governments mistreating their Shiites invite the risk of Iranian meddling, making it seem that homegrown grievances among their communities cannot be addressed under the ruling government.
They note also that terror groups like ISIS seek to boost Shiite alienation to destabilize U.S.-friendly countries. Many extremist attacks in the Sunni-led Gulf monarchies have targeted Shiites.
“It is an open sore that ISIS can exploit,” Frederic Wehrey, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told HuffPost.
A 2006 American diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks argued that Saudi Shiites primarily wanted greater autonomy and were unlikely to embrace militancy unless the Saudi government cracked down.
Since then, Shiites in Saudi Arabia and neighboring Bahrain rose up in 2011 to demand more freedoms as part of the regional Arab Spring, but faced an immediate and brutal state crackdown. The Saudi government is expected to soon execute 14 Shiites associated with the protest movement.
With Trump pushing human rights off the U.S. foreign policy agenda, giving a de facto green-light to Bahrain’s repression against Shiites, and supporting dramatic Saudi moves like severing ties with the U.S.-friendly state of Qatar, the moment seems ripe for hardliners in the Saudi government and maximalist positions. Earlier this year, for instance, Prince Mohammed suggested that Iran cannot be negotiated with because its leaders hold a common Shiite belief: that salvation will be precipitated by a “hidden” religious leader, the Mahdi.
American officials have generally seen the Saudi Shiite issue as an internal problem, not formulating any official policy but trying to talk to all sides and urge moderation, said former ambassador Jim Smith, who served in the kingdom from 2009 to 2013. “The reality of it is that [the neighboring Shiite town of] Qatif and Awamiya are another example of the tragedy of using sectarian conflict as a means of creating problems in the region,” he said.
Saudi officials have said they informed the Awamiya community prior to the campaign and noted that the fighting has also claimed several officers’ lives. On Wednesday, the government took journalists on a tour of the town. “Reporters escorted by special forces in armored vehicles saw streets in Awamiya’s old quarter transformed into a war zone a world away from the sparkling cityscapes elsewhere in the energy-rich Gulf,” a Reuters correspondent wrote.
But a softer touch might have prevented the situation in the Awamiya neighborhood from reaching crisis point.
“This whole thing could have been avoided with negotiation and settlement,” said Ali Al-Ahmed, a Saudi Shiite who grew up near Awamiya and now runs the Institute for Gulf Affairs, Washington, D.C.-based think tank. “The Saudi government is running a drive against people to make an example of the minority and show the majority [its power]... our people are no different than anybody else, the Americans who launched their revolution, the French, the Syrians.”
His organization has documented the concerns of Saudi Shiites for years. Interviewees for one report said they were barred from top positions in the government and private industry and removed from mosques in Sunni areas if they stopped to pray.
“The Shiite community continues to face religious discrimination in the Kingdom and arrests and detentions of Shiite dissidents continues unabated, despite Saudi government assertions that Shiite Muslims are not targeted because of their religion or belief,” said Dwight Bashir, the director of research and policy at the U.S. government religious freedom commission. ”For many years, the government has detained and imprisoned Shiite Muslims for participating in demonstrations or publicly calling for reform, holding small religious gatherings in private homes without permits, and organizing religious events or celebrating religious holidays in certain parts of the country.”
Meanwhile, Shiites made many demands for change in non-sectarian terms, pushing broader reforms in the judiciary, security services and political system that would grant greater freedom to Saudi society as a whole, Wehrey wrote in 2014 after a visit to Awamiya. He told HuffPost he saw Saudi government claims of Iranian intervention in Saudi Shiite politics as “overblown.”
Smith, the former ambassador, recalled Saudi officials trying to bolster that narrative by showing him records of calls from Shiites to Qom, a religious center in Iran, but said many people he spoke with in the Shiite community seemed like ”wonderful people who have the same kind of hope for the success of the kingdom that other people do” and more interested in fellow Shiites in Iraq than the different, non-Arab communities in Iran.
Cleric Nimr al-Nimr, the most notable of Awamiya’s dissidents until the Saudi government executed him in 2016, called for civil disobedience but avoided advocating for Iran-style theocratic rule, according a Congressional Research Service review.
The current situation in Nimr’s hometown “is really quite beyond anything I’ve ever seen in Saudi Arabia,” said Coogle of Human Rights Watch.
Saudi authorities were correct in saying that the neighborhood in Awamiya being demolished, Mosawara, had health and safety issues, and that Shiites there had attacked government forces, Coogle said. But he said they chose to respond with a dramatic approach that has involved essentially laying the Shiite town under siege.
To groups like HRW, the crackdown is further evidence that the Saudis should not be supplied with Western security equipment ― a view that’s gaining popularity in Western capitals as a humanitarian crisis continues to unfold amid the Saudi-led, U.S.-backed war in Yemen.
Continued arms exports appear to already flout U.S. law given Saudi domestic rights abuses, according to an American Bar Association commissioned assessment by former military lawyer Michael Newton.
On Wednesday, the Reuters report suggested that the Saudi operation was close to its conclusion. But Shiite frustration is unlikely to abate, Al-Ahmed said.
“The goal here is to subjugate the population,” he said. “I don’t think they’ll succeed.”