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UK envoy to Saudi Arabia hails defeat of 'terrorists' in besieged Shia town

Ambassador said shattered Awamiyah could be rebuilt with the 'return of security' to the city
Simon Collis has been accused of ignoring harassment of locals and rights activists (AFP)

Human rights activists have criticised the British ambassador to Saudi Arabia after he was filmed in the recently besieged eastern province city of Awamiyah praising the government's defeat of "terrorists".

Awamiyah, located in the Shia-populated Qatif province, was the site of clashes between Saudi security forces and locals last year after attempts were made to demolish the historic Musawara district.

"This morning I am visiting Musawara in Awamiyah," said Simon Collis in the video, released on Twitter by the Saudi news site Al-Sharq Al-Awsat on Thursday, after he visited the area that morning.

It is disgraceful to sweep under the carpet the Saudi state violence. The problems in Awamiyah can’t be solved by taking security measures or through some artificial investment

- Ameen Nemer, Awamiyah activist

"This is a place where the Saudi authorities defeated terrorists last year and where they have begun to rebuild the community."

He hailed the "investment" going on in the town as a sign that the community was being rebuilt following the siege.

"You can see that there's been problems here in the past, but that now there is a drive to renew the community based on the return of security to Awamiyah," he said.

"It's a pleasure to visit and to see this under the arrangements made by the Saudi authorities."

'Seeing things through the authorities' eyes'

Ameen Nemer, a human rights activist originally from Awamiyah, said the ambassador was seeing "things through the Saudi authorities' eyes".

"It is disgraceful to sweep under the carpet the Saudi state violence," Nemer, who is now based in the UK, told Middle East Eye.

"The problems in Awamiyah can’t be solved by taking security measures or through some artificial investment. 

"There are many peaceful activists behind bars since 2011. Security presence and raids are still ongoing in Awamiayh. We need a political solution."

Although the Saudi government said that builders and security services had come under fire from armed groups, dozens of civilians were killed in fighting in the town, including a three-year-old boy who died after a Saudi armoured vehicle fired on his family car, according to locals. 

As many as 30,000 people were thought to have fled, while essential services were prevented from entering the town.

Dozens of people are thought to be in hiding since the siege, fearing execution by the Saudi authorities. Locals reportedly avoid leaving their homes and face regular harassment from security forces.

Last August, Saudi Arabia announced that the redevelopment of Musawara would include a “public market, heritage shops, heritage area, cultural centre, public library, gymnasium, cafeterias, restaurants and halls".

But both locals and international bodies have criticised the "renovation" of the 400-year-old district.

In April 2017, the United Nations called on the Saudi government to halt the project, warning that it threatened "the historical and cultural heritage of the town with irreparable harm".

“Residents have been pressured in many ways, including through power cuts, to vacate their homes and businesses without adequate alternative resettlement options, leaving them at best with insufficient compensation and at worst, with nowhere to go," said the UN special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, Leilani Farha.

Nemer said the demolition of Musawara was "cultural cleansing".

Awamiyah was originally home to the popular Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr who led protests against the Saudi government, calling for more personal freedoms and an end to discrimination against the kingdom's Shia minority.

Nimr was arrested and then executed on 2 January 2016 for "terrorism" offences.

The town has long been a flashpoint for protests against the Saudi family, especially following Nimr's execution.

Hundreds have been executed in Saudi Arabia in recent years, despite the ascension to power of self-proclaimed reformer Mohammed bin Salman.

According to Amnesty International, Saudi Arabia executed 146 people in 2017, representing 17 percent of all confirmed executions in the Middle East for that year.