Protests in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province began nearly two years ago. Since then, 18 lives have been taken by Saudi security forces and many more have been arrested for criticizing government injustices. The most recent death came on the night of December 26th when an 18-year-old boy, Ahmed Al-Matar, was shot in the eastern city of Qatif – the epicenter of the protests.
The parents of these slain young men not only must cope with the loss of their loved ones, but also must tolerate government slander against the characters of their deceased sons. In response to the deaths, Saudi officials have issued statements claiming security forces merely fired in response to armed attacks, portraying demonstrators and Qatif’s citizens as violent aggressors.
While human rights organizations have called on Saudi Arabia to investigate the killings, the state has remained complacent. The government also has failed to present any concrete evidence to support its claims about demonstrator violence.
With every passing death, activists in Qatif have been quick to issue detailed statements explaining the events leading up to each killing and refuting government claims that protestors were armed and violent.
In the case of Ahmed Al-Matar, a statement was released by activistswith the testimony of an individual who had been on the phone with Ahmed at the time of his shooting. This witness testimony greatly contradicts government claims that Al-Matar had been shooting at security forces. The Al-Matar family also challenged the government’s version of events, insisting that Ahmed had not been involved in any violent activities.
Thanks to government restrictions on the media, it is challenging to get local perspectives, like this, on the violence in Qatif. Recently, a Saudi journalist recounted on Twitter that she and a BBC reporter were interviewing families of prisoners in Qatif. As recounted in her tweet, she and her colleague were stopped and interrogated by Saudi police. Their interview notes were confiscated and they were told that the Prince of the Eastern Province had banned reporters from entering the city.
As this incident demonstrates, reporters without ties to the regime have a hard time entering Qatif. The government has also taught the Saudi population to believe that Qatif is “too dangerous a place to visit.” This gives the regime absolute control in shaping perceptions about events inside the eastern city. As someone who has spent a significant portion of time in Qatif, I can testify that a simple trip to the city easily dispels this government propaganda.
While over the past year similar protests have occurred throughout the Kingdom, with demonstrators subjected to police force, unfair interrogations and imprisonment, the state-sanctioned killing of protestors has been unique to Qatif, a region with a large Shiite population.
The Saudi state implements a rigid interpretation of Sunni Islam, which is highly intolerant of diversity and works to homogenize the faith. Any deviation from regime-sanctioned religious views comes with the threat of condemnation.
Shiites are a particular target of these highly sectarian policies. According to government views on Islam, Shiites are heretics. This perspective is also espoused by school materials and state appointed clerics who teach that Shiites are dangerous liars and enemies of Islam.
Unfortunately, this discourse has been accepted by many in Saudi society. While Shiites are a minority in Saudi Arabia, Saudis are well aware that they are the majority in Qatif. Because of government propaganda, however, many Saudis are content to overlook the human rights violations in Qatif and the legitimate grievances of its people.
In order for human rights to be respected in Saudi Arabia, the sectarian discourse taught in many government institutions must be rejected, and the Saudi people must unite to give their country’s Shiite minority an outlet to speak and represent themselves.
The death of Ahmed Al-Matar may be one step in this direction. Shortly after the young man’s killing, Saudi activists launched a Twitter campaign under the Arabic hashtag “We All Are Qatif”. Many Saudis on Twitter adopted the hashtag, rejecting sectarianism and showing solidarity with the plight of Qatif’s people. While many tweeps wrote inspiring words of unity, others took the opportunity to recognize the harsh reality facing the country’s Shiite population.
Movements like these may start small, but if they grow, they hold the promise of a more united Saudi population capable of bringing human rights and freedom to the country.