Saudi Shia and the aftermath of terror

Saudi Shia and the aftermath of terror
Thousands of mourners turn out to the funeral of Shia killed in Eastern Province this week, as Saudi Arabia's leadership attempt to unify the country.
4 min read
08 November, 2014
The poster showed unity between civilian and police victims
Of all the pictures and images coming out of the grieving community of Al Dalwah in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, one stands out. It is of a poster with photographs of ten victims of a terror attack, eight residents of the village and two police officers killed in a shootout with suspects.

Monday's attack in the village was carried out by Sunni extremists who targeted a group of young Shia just leaving a Hussainiya congregation hall where they had attended an Ashura ceremony honouring Imam Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.

Hussain's death in battle in 680 AD was a defining moment that led to the division of Islam into its Sunni and Shia sects.

Three masked shooters armed with automatic rifles leapt out of a car and sprayed the crowd with gunfire. The attack lasted for a little more than five minutes, and when it was over the dead and dying lay in a street littered with spent cartridge shells. One victim was only 12 years old.

Display of unity

Tens of thousands of mourners converged on Al Dalwah for the funeral. Amateur video seen by al-Araby al-Jadeed shows a group walking and chanting: "Sunni and Shia are brothers. We won't trade our country. We answer your call Hussain. No, no to terrorism."
     Sunni and Shia are brothers.
- Mourners in Al Dalwah

Remarkable in itself, given sectarian tensions in the region but it is the poster that is perhaps most remarkable.

The Eastern Province has been the scene of violent clashes between the authorities and protesters for nearly four years. At least twenty demonstrators have been shot dead by police and security forces in recent years. The authorities say that the police were fired on first. The families of the dead say that their loved ones were unarmed and peaceful victims of police brutality.

Hundreds have been arrested, the most significant and controversial being that of the senior Shia cleric Ayatollah Nimr Nimr.

He was shot in the leg while being detained in July 2012.

The authorities claimed that shots had come from the car he was travelling in, but his family have denied that claim and say he was unarmed.
Thousands of mourners converged on the village of Al Dalwah

His arrest triggered massive protests that saw three shot dead.

Death penalty

When, in October of this year, Sheikh Nimr was sentenced to death for charges that included "disobeying the ruler", the Shia community reacted with outrage.

What was an already extremely tense situation could have exploded into sectarian violence with Monday's attack. That was clearly the intention of the attackers. They chose a soft target - Al Dalwah is a mixed community of Sunni and Shia with no history of tension between the sects and very little in the way of security. They attacked during Ashura, the holiest time in the Shia religious calendar.

But the response of the authorities was immediate and effective. The alleged perpetrators were quickly captured. Two others were killed in a gunfight that took the lives of two officers. 

Senior Sunni clerics denounced the act. Saudi Minister of the Interior Mohamed bin Nayef went to Al Dalwah and met with Shia clerics, families of the victims and community leaders. The meeting was widely covered on state-controlled television.
One victim of the attack was 12 years old

The government ordered imams in every mosque in the country to speak of the attack in Friday prayers and to stress that it was intended to rupture the unity of the kingdom.

And the posters spoke to that call for unity and made a simple but eloquent statement. The police, who in the Eastern Province have used what critics have called "state terror" to suppress dissent, are themselves victims, brought together with murdered Shia - and both groups are the shared target of a terror attack.

Turning point

Could this tragedy be a turning point in the strained relationship between the authorities and the Shia of the Eastern Province?

The answer lies in the hands of the ruling Al Saud family and King Abdullah. Thus far the king has shown both sensitivity and skill in handling the aftermath of the shooting. And there is one further step that he can and should take. Should he pardon Nimr Nimr, then Abdullah will be seen to have struck a blow for unity against the extremists who want to further enflame sectarian divisions in Saudi Arabia.