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Saudi bulldozers flatten Shia town as residents flee carnage

Hundreds of Shia Muslims in Awamiya are forced from their homes amid fighting and compulsory evictions
A screengrab appears to show bullet-ridden buildings demolished by bulldozers in Qatif (@AngryQatifi)

The Saudi government has been forcibly relocating residents of the restive city of Awamiya as clashes continue between soldiers and militant groups in the old city.

Hundreds of people have fled or been evacuated from Awamiya since the beginning of the current troubles which have killed at least seven people, including two police officers. According to al-Hayat newspaper, the government received requests from residents and farmers around Awamiya to help them flee the violence.

However, activists say that residents have been driven out of their homes and their properties seized by private development companies, primarily in and around the historic Almosara district.

An image sent to Middle East Eye by an Awamiya activist showed a requisition order pinned to a house in the district of al-Shweikah, about 6km south of Almosara.

The order is apparently issued by the Albarahim private property developer, but it also contains a stamp from the National Joint Counterterrorism Command (NJCC), a body formed in 2003 following attacks by al-Qaeda militants in the country.

The document shows a list of requirements that residents can bring to the local authorities in order to be relocated.

Awamiya has long been a flashpoint for protests by Saudi's Shia minority - the influential cleric Nimr al-Nimr, who was executed by the Saudi government in 2016, came from the town and demonstrations and unrest has been frequent.

Al-Hayat quoted Falah al-Khalidi, the governor of Qatif province, as saying contracts had been signed "for a number of furnished apartments in the city of Dammam to shelter those interested in leaving neighbourhoods near Almosara".

However, according to social media reports and activists, many of those displaced have yet to be rehoused.

"What I see from the first day there is a collective punishment... there is a plan for forced displacement," said Ameen Nemer, a Saudi activist originally from Awamiya.

"It doesn't matter where these people will end up."

He told MEE that the depopulation and destruction of the town was ultimately politically motivated, rather than driven by development or terrorism.

"It has nothing to do with Almosara and development, it has to do with punishing this town for being vocal for calling for rights, calling for reforms since 2011."

Firing randomly

Confirming precise details about the situation in Qatif has long been difficult due to tight controls over media scrutiny imposed by the Saudi authorities.

Reuters reported earlier this year that foreign media could visit the area only if they accompanied by government officials, purportedly for safety reasons.

Information has largely come from either Saudi government press releases, local activists, or Shia-focused news sites.

Local activists accuse security forces of driving residents out of Awamiya by firing randomly towards homes and cars as they confront armed men in the area, charges Saudi Arabia denies.

They said several houses and shops have been burned or damaged by the fighting.

Video posted online appears to shown much of the city reduced to rubble.

Much of the city has been left without electricity, water, rubbish collection or fire services. Private generators have been badly damaged by shooting and those remaining in the city face intense summer heat without air conditioning.

Although local committees have been set up to try to maintain some services, it is becoming increasing difficult for many residents to stay in the city.

Andrew Hammond, a consultant on Middle East politics, said that the emptying of Awamiya could be part of a strategy to enact demographic change in the disruptive Shia region of Saudi Arabia.

"It fits that pattern," he told MEE. "It's something that's happened in the Gulf, in Bahrain, it's something that's happened outside the Gulf in Israel-Palestine.

"I think it would make sense to analyse it in that way."

He added that the fighting also worked as a "useful diversion" from the political unrest in the Saudi palace following the supplanting of former crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef with the current king's youthful son Mohammed bin Salman.

"That's been more complex than I think they would have hoped for - I think there's been some resistance to it, there's nervousness about how much irritation there is with what happened to the extent that [bin Nayef] didn't leave the country in recent weeks when he was meant to leave the country," he explained.

"So I think there's this political tension in the country at the moment, and it's always this fight with the Shia that functions usefully for them in that sense."

Foreign arms controversy

Last week, Canada announced it would be investigating possible use of its equipment in the operations in Qatif, following a report in the Globe and Mail that light armoured vehicles sold by Canada to Saudi Arabia had been involved in the clashes.

A spokesman indicated that the Canadian foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, was "deeply concerned about this situation and has asked officials to review it immediately".

"If it is found that Canadian exports have been used to commit serious violations of human rights, the minister will take action," said spokesman John Babcock.

The controversial $13bn contract to supply Riyadh with light armoured vehicles was struck by the previous Conservative government in Canada.

Trudeau's Liberal government has had to defend this contract against criticism that it may have violated Canada's export control rules that bar arms exports to countries with a poor human rights record and that prohibit using these weapons against civilians.

Shia women hold placards bearing pictures of cleric Nimr al-Nimr during a protest on 8 January, 2016 in the eastern coastal city of Qatif (AFP)

Other governments, including the UK and US, have yet to comment on the situation in Qatif.

The UK government, one of Saudi's closest allies, has approved at least 194 export licences for arms and related equipment to Saudi Arabia since March 2015, worth more than $4.3bn. Among the products bought are guns, crowd control and anti-riot equipment.

The British Foreign Office refused to answer questions about the situation in Awamiya and whether there was any investigation into the use of British equipment.

A spokesman said: "The UK operates one of the most robust export control regimes in the world and we keep our defence exports to Saudi Arabia under careful and continual review."

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition

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