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Cablegate: Ashura in the Ep: A Tale of Two Cities

VZCZCXRO4773
PP RUEHBC RUEHDE RUEHDIR RUEHKUK
DE RUEHRH #0121/01 0300940
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
P 300940Z JAN 08
FM AMEMBASSY RIYADH
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 7488
INFO RUEHZM/GULF COOPERATION COUNCIL COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
RUCNIRA/IRAN COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
RUEHGB/AMEMBASSY BAGHDAD PRIORITY 0625
RUEHLB/AMEMBASSY BEIRUT PRIORITY 0952
RUEAIIA/CIA WASHDC PRIORITY

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 RIYADH 000121

SIPDIS

SIPDIS

DEPT FOR DS/IP/ITA

E.O. 12958: DECL: 01/30/2018
TAGS: KIRF PGOV PHUM PREL SCUL SOCI SA
SUBJECT: ASHURA IN THE EP: A TALE OF TWO CITIES

REF: 07 RIYADH 00231

Classified By: CONSUL GENERAL JOHN KINCANNON FOR REASONS 1.4 (B) AND (D
)


1. (C) SUMMARY: Falling on January 19, 2008, this year's
Ashura commemorations in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia
continued the trend of the recent past; Qatif-area Shi'a
enjoyed increased freedom of expression while the Al-Ahsa
community was strictly forbidden from any public
commemorations. With SAG security presence at a minimum,
Qatifis organized religious events, speeches, plays,
processions, and sales of Shi'a memorabilia in increased
quantity. The festivities attracted record turnout according
to local observers. In contrast, on January 5, al-Ahsa
Governor Badr bin Jiluwi expressly forbade sheikhs in that
area from organizing any public events. Authorities in
al-Ahsa closed down multiple husseiniyyas as a preventative
measure, while in the predominantly Shi'a village of Rumailah
a contact reported small clashes between young men throwing
rocks and police officials that entered the village to remove
signs associated with the holiday. Consistent with previous
years, there were no public Ashura events in the
Dammam/Khobar/Dhahran metro area. Useful as a barometer of
the relationship between the Eastern Province Shi'a
communities and the SAG, this year's Ashura celebrations
leave little doubt that a dual policy has taken shape. END
SUMMARY.

--------------------------------------------- ---------
QATIF COMMEMORATIONS INCREASE IN NUMBER, PARTICIPATION
--------------------------------------------- ---------

2. (C) With ConGen Dhahran officers observing Ashura
activities in person on 8, 9, and 10 Muharram (NOTE: 10
Muharram is the actual day of Ashura, this year celebrated on
January 19. END NOTE) it was quickly apparent that the Saudi
security posture in Qatif was not one of confrontation, but
rather of compromise and assistance. On each day, Saudi
authorities established a checkpoint on the road leading from
Qatif highway to the center of the city, although security
checks on cars appeared lax. The security presence in
central Qatif on 8 Muharram was overt in the form of between
5 and 10 Ministry of Interior (MOI) Special Security Force
police cars and uniformed officers on foot around the edges
of the approximately square mile area of events. These
officers interacted amiably with the crowd, serving as
traffic and crowd control for a mass of people in the
thousands. Community leaders reported to PolOff the presence
of at least two plain-clothed Mabahith officers among the
crowd (MOI General Intelligence).

3. (C) With the exception of the massive crowd control effort
required during the Gudaih village Karbala play, security
presence was minimal throughout the proceedings. Many events
witnessed by ConGen Officers included audiences numbering in
the hundreds, and went unsupervised by any uniformed officer
(NOTE: Karbala plays are held on 10 Muharram and commemorate
the martyrdom of Imam Hussein. Gudaih holds the largest play
in Qatif, last year estimated at an audience of more than
10,000. It is widely agreed this year's audience was
considerably larger than that of last year. END NOTE).

4. (C) The community of Awamiyya, referred to locally as
"Little Fallujah" and known for its harder edge and supposed
propensity for street violence, holds one of the larger
Karbala plays in Qatif as well as the only haza (mourning)
procession in Saudi Arabia in which participants cut their
scalps with swords and march while bleeding (NOTE: In most
proceedings, "hazis" rhythmically beat their chests with
their hands, while in the community of Aujam they flagellate
themselves using metal chains. Awamiyya's procession is
considered the most extreme, but is paradoxically the only
one witnessed by ConGen officers in which a procession of
women, scalps uncut, followed the men. END NOTE).

5. (C) To assure that all logistical and security precautions
were in place, young men in Awamiyya organized security posts
and officers, wearing badges and neon-colored vests to
identify themselves and using two-way radios to communicate.
These security efforts were better organized than previous,
less formal plans which led to an incident last year in which
three unofficial mutawa (religious police) - private Salafi
citizens that locals believe were unaffiliated with the
Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice
(CPVPV) - attempted to enter the Awamiyya proceedings and
were beaten by local youth (COMMENT: Qatif contacts believe
that "Wahhabis" seek to gain access to such Ashura events to
confront participants, or record the proceedings for the
purpose of then campaigning against the Shi'a as unbelievers.
For this reason, some security presence is often welcomed by
the Qatif community, to ensure that any who would wish to
incite violence are prevented from attending. END COMMENT).
Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr delivered the opening speech to the
Karbala play in Awamiyya, this following his 9 Muharram
(January 18) speech calling for the creation of a United
Opposition Front to challenge the SAG (septel).

6. (C) An example of the increasingly free atmosphere that
Qatif Shi'a enjoyed was a new event in the Qatif-area town of
Safwa. Though a procession of thousands of hazis had been
refused permission to march down the main road of Safwa (they
instead marched down side roads without issue), the
government did not stop the community from organizing a new
event area that included a sand sculpture, an artistic area
for calligraphy and Ashura-themed paintings/drawings, a tent
area with a video feed for lectures, and a tent for educating
children on the meaning of Ashura (NOTE: PolOff was informed
by event organizers that the satellite connection was used to
provide religious lectures from participants in Iraq. END
NOTE). As with many celebrations, food was cooked and shared
for free with event guests. One of the organizers told
PolOff that the Mabahith had intervened when on 2 Muharram
(January 10) the group began setting up tents without
permission. Reportedly, after a meeting in the Dammam
General Intelligence office, all issues were resolved, and
the Safwa residents were free to continue with their new
commemoration event. Sheikh Mohammad Hassan, presiding over
the Safwa event, spoke to PolOff about the need of SAG
security to allow peaceful commemorations such as that one,
particularly when repression of such events might lead to
conflict.

--------------------
WHAT IS THE MESSAGE?
--------------------

7. (C) Sheikh Hassan al-Saffar, generally recognized as
Qatif's most prominent religious figure, consistently
attracted the largest audiences to his lectures with parking
lots swelling and overflow crowds sitting in the streets
outside of husseiniyyas during his speeches. The thousands
in attendance were only a small number compared to those who
watched al-Saffar on satellite channel al-Kothar, or
downloaded his speeches from www.saffar.org (NOTE: Local
contacts informed ConGen Officers that several Qatif-area
events were covered by non-Saudi media including Iranian
television station "Al Sahar," and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi
Council's network "Al Forat." END NOTE). Leader of the
"Shirazi" faction of the EP and long a proponent of
non-violent partnership with the SAG, al-Saffar continued to
stress reform within the context of the Saudi state.
However, this did not stop him from highlighting the need for
greater Shi'a/SAG cooperation. Pointing out that many Saudis
accuse the United States of trying to separate the EP from
greater Saudi Arabia, Saffar said that the greatest force
causing any such separatism is intolerant Sunnis who force
Shi'a to feel as unwanted foreigners in their own country.
The number of signs expressing support for Lebanese Hezbollah
and Hassan Nasrallah was less than last year, the previous
year's surge tied to the Israeli-Hezbollah clash of summer
2006 (reftel), but ConGen officers did observe children
wearing Nasrallah shirts and his books were readily available
in Ashura markets. Contacts also reported that Hezbollah
satellite television station "Al-Manar" covered Ashura events
in Qatif. Additionally of note was the increase from last
year in Iran-related paraphernalia on display in the Ashura
markets, from Iranian flag headbands for children, to books
on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

--------------------------------------------- --------
AL-AHSA COMMUNITY FORBIDDEN FROM PUBLIC COMMEMORATION
--------------------------------------------- --------

8. (C) While Qatif enjoyed greater freedom of religious
expression, the SAG prevented al-Ahsa from any public
commemorations. Post contacts report that on January 5,
2008, al-Ahsa regional Governor Badr bin-Jiluwi called a
meeting of approximately 30 Hasawi sheikhs to warn them
against organizing or supporting any public Ashura events.
The al-Ahsa municipal police then forcibly closed multiple
husseiniyyas, including that of Mohammed al-Harz, a
well-known Hasawi Shi'a whose husseiniyya had operated for
thirty-five years. The closed husseiniyyas were advised to
remain closed until further notice. While the January 5
meeting and increased police patrolling dissuaded the vast
majority of Shi'a in al-Ahsa from any public demonstrations,
residents of the Rumailah village resisted. Prominent
al-Ahsa human rights activist and member of the National
Society for Human Rights Mohammed al-Jubran reported that
throughout the first 10 days of Muharram, there were small
clashes between youth in Rumailah, who hung banners and
erected flags, and the security forces that would come to
remove such displays.

9. (C) Al-Jubran reports that the tenor of such resistance
and demonstrations has become more strident, as Hasawis
continue to receive what they feel is unequal treatment.
Some of the banners posted in Rumailah called for a "renewed
intifada," and contacts reported that the chatter always
constant in the Hasawi Shi'a community had taken a decidedly
harsher tone in recent weeks. A commemoration of the
intifada of 1979 - an uprising of Eastern Province Shi'a
sparked by popular enthusiasm for the ideals of the Iranian
Revolution - has been a recurring theme in the EP Shi'a
community during past weeks, exemplified by the Shi'a website
www.rasid.com running regular pieces discussing the
importance of the intifada, going so far as to even post
pictures of those killed in the uprisings. Al-Jubran
reported that while there were 48 total Ashura-related
arrests in al-Ahsa last year, there are no reported arrests
thus far this year. He did add though that it is still much
too early to compare, as Saudi authorities will often wait
one to two months before making arrests in cases of
unauthorized religious celebration.

10. (C) COMMENT: There is no doubt that the work by the
Shirazi leadership in Qatif, some of whom are part of the
Qatif Municipal Council, has paid dividends in the latitude
granted to the community to handle its own affairs. Building
on new autonomy such as the budgetary authority gained by the
Qatif Municipal Council in 2007, this year's Ashura events
were extremely well-attended in spite of cold temperatures.
Event organizers in each of the villages visited reported
crowds equal to if not bigger than in years past. As a
consequence of this greater liberty, Qatifis generally
acknowledge progress by the SAG in granting equality to all
citizens and reflect an understanding that reform is a slow
process. This starkly contrasts with opinions in al-Ahsa,
where contacts describe a growing wave of negative reaction
to increased SAG repression and warn of "consequences" to
repressive tactics. Mohammed al-Jubran told PolOff that
while he is often able to help aggrieved young people find an
avenue by which to air their grievances through formal
channels, he worries about the increasing number of young
people unable to access such channels who may instead voice
their protests in other ways. END COMMENT

(APPROVED: KINCANNON)
GFOELLER

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