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Cablegate: Ep Cleric,S Calls for Opposition Go Unheeded

VZCZCXYZ2664
PP RUEHWEB

DE RUEHRH #0371/01 0651259
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
P 051259Z MAR 08
FM AMEMBASSY RIYADH
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 7890
INFO RUEHZM/GULF COOPERATION COUNCIL COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
RHEHNSC/NSC WASHDC PRIORITY
RUEKDIA/DIA WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
RUEAIIA/CIA WASHDC PRIORITY

C O N F I D E N T I A L RIYADH 000371

SIPDIS

SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: DECL: 03/04/2018
TAGS: KIRF KISL PGOV PINR PREL PTER SA
SUBJECT: EP CLERIC,S CALLS FOR OPPOSITION GO UNHEEDED
(C-CT7-00989)

REF: A. 06 RIYADH 003889
B. 06 RIYADH 3720
C. 08 RIYADH 121
D. 08 RIYADH 42

Classified By: Consul General John Kincannon for Reasons 1.4 (b) and (d
).

1. (C) SUMMARY: On January 18, 2008, in conjunction with
local Ashura commemorations, Qatif-based Shi'a cleric Sheikh
Nimr al-Nimr called for the formation of a "Righteous
Opposition Front" to combat social corruption, the "religious
clergy," and political injustice against Shi'a citizens in
Saudi Arabia. Though noted for his regularly strident
language, al-Nimr's calls to "fight and condemn those who
prevent us from practicing our faith" were extreme by even
his standard and turned heads throughout the Eastern
Province. Over a month after al-Nimr's speech, there has
been no discernible support for the Sheikh's comments. Post
contacts believe this is in part due to prominent sheikh
Hassan al-Saffar's public urging of Saudi Shi'a to ignore
al-Nimr's instigation and continue working within the
institutions of the current state and regime. In addition,
al-Nimr reportedly received a visit from Saudi Ministry of
Interior officials after his remarks. While most local
observers surmise that al-Nimr is too marginal a figure to
catalyze a significant opposition movement, some caution that
his words are piquing the interest of young men disaffected
by a perceived lack of progress for the Saudi Shi'a. END
SUMMARY.

--------------------------------------------- ------
CALL FOR CREATION OF A "RIGHTEOUS OPPOSITION FRONT"
--------------------------------------------- ------

2. (C) The celebration of Ashura plays an important
socio-religious role in Shi'a communities, not only as a
spiritual event, but additionally as an occasion to renew and
unify Shi'a identity. This is particularly true for the
Shi'a population of the Eastern Province (EP), as Ashura
provides a way to assert community identity against the
omnipresent overlay of Sunni governing institutions in Saudi
Arabia. Using Hussein's martyrdom at the hands of tyrants as
a foundation, in a January 18th (9 Muharram) speech, Qatif
sheikh Nimr al-Nimr called for the creation of a "Righteous
Opposition Front" that would "fight and condemn those who
prevent us from practicing our faith." In a nearly half-hour
long speech, the cleric said that courage and bravery are
essential factors to fight oppression, tyranny and
corruption, and asked, "How long will we continue to be
victims and targets?" Invoking the EP Shi'a uprising of 1979
- sparked when the SAG violently prevented Ashura
celebrations - al-Nimr stated that those who do not stand up
in the face of aggression are destined for the fires of hell.
He added that this "wise" opposition front must be led by
learned men of religion, and that he would be the "first man
to put his name forward..."

--------------------------------------------- -------
EFFECT OF HIS WORDS, AL-NIMR'S PLACE IN EP HEIRARCHY
--------------------------------------------- -------

3. (C) Although al-Nimr's words caused a stir in the broader
Shi'a community of the Eastern Province, they do not seem to
have engendered any significant measure of support. Most
observers feel that al-Nimr's impassioned calls for
confrontation will go unheeded for two primary reasons, his
marginality relative to the true leaders of the EP Shi'a, and
SAG monitoring of the situation.

4. (C) Despite previous reporting implying a connection
between Nimr al-Nimr and Saudi Hizbollah, post has reassessed
his role based on new information from contacts. Post now
regards him as being a hard-line, independent actor, not
directly affiliated with either the Shirazi or Hizbollahi
movements. While the al-Nimr name is well-known within Qatif
community, it is Sheikh Hassan al-Nimr, a distant familial
relation to Nimr al-Nimr, who enjoys greater recognition and
importance in the EP hierarchy. Hassan was one of the
religious leaders of the Saudi Hizbollah movement (Reftel A),
and has participated in at least one previous National
Dialogue session with the royal court. Nimr al-Nimr derives
his more limited following not from a broad political or
religious following, but rather from the village of Awamiyya,
known jokingly in the local community as "Little Fallujah," a
reflection of its reputation as the roughest and most
violence-prone village of the Qatif-area. Nimr al-Nimr
serves as Imam in an Awamiyya mosque, and it was in the
Karbala Square area of the village that he delivered this
speech.

5. (C) In addition to his limited constituency, Nimr
al-Nimr's message was quickly and significantly undercut by
Sheikh Hassan al-Saffar, the leader of the Shirazis, when
al-Saffar publicly rebutted al-Nimr's opposition movement by
calling for Saudi Shi'a to continue to non-violently work
with the mechanisms of the state to achieve reform (NOTE:
Al-Saffar and Munir al-Khabaz are widely regarded as two of
the most influential Sheikhs in the EP. Al-Saffar is the
most widely followed "political" Sheikh, while al-Khabaz is
primarily apolitical, but is perceived as having great
potential to ascend the Shi'a religious hierarchy.
Additionally, contacts inform post that al-Khabaz is a Sayid,
a direct descendent of the Prophet Mohammad. END NOTE).
Since returning from exile in the mid-90s, Al-Saffar and the
Islamic Reform Movement, also known as the Shirazis, have
supported working with the Saudi regime to achieve Shi'a
political goals, putting them at odds with Nimr al-Nimr. It
was the Shirazis who negotiated with King Fahd in 1993 for
the return to the Kingdom of all Saudi Shi'a exiles, and the
last 15 years have only seen the group consolidate its
position of power within the community.

6. (C) As evidenced by a 2006 incident in which Nimr al-Nimr
was detained for four days upon entering Saudi Arabia after a
short trip to Bahrain, the SAG closely watches the firebrand
cleric (Reftel B). Many local observers were surprised that
al-Nimr did not go to jail for his call to action, but
multiple Post contacts report that soon after his Ashura
speech al-Nimr received a visit from an official from the
General Intelligence arm of the Ministry of Interior
(Mabahith). The Mabahith supposedly told al-Nimr to end his
calls for opposition or the SAG would act against him. There
has been little public mention of al-Nimr or his opposition
movement since his 9 Muharram speech.

--------------------------------------------- -
FEARS THAT AL-NIMR MAY REACH DISAFFECTED YOUTH
--------------------------------------------- -

7. (C) While most observers were confident that al-Nimr's
words would not amount to much, some did express concern
that, in addition to his core supporters in the Awamiyya
community, al-Nimr's zealotry would entice young people
disaffected by a perceived lack of progress in gaining
greater rights. Dr. Sadek al-Jubran, commenting on the small
clashes that occurred in the Rumailah village of al-Ahsa as a
result of SAG repression of this year's Ashura, said that men
such as those involved in Rumailah were encouraged by
al-Nimr's talk of opposition (Reftel C). Al-Jubran, a
Shirazi and one of the leaders of the Hasawi Shi'a community,
argued that al-Nimr is not as marginalized as others believe,
and that in the face of stagnating rights and increased
economic pressures, people might respond to the fervor of his
words.

8. (C) COMMENT: Al-Jubran's argument is supported by the fact
that in July of 2007, Sheikh al-Nimr led a delegation from
Awamiyya in a meeting with Jiluwi bin Abdulaziz bin Musaad,
Deputy Emir of the Eastern Province. Al-Nimr participated in
this meeting to discuss issues of poverty and housing in
Awamiyya, and gained media coverage throughout the Shi'a
community. Likewise, al-Jubran's argument about external
pressures affecting political/religious ideology is supported
by the slight resurgence of Sa'ad al-Faqih, the London-based
Salafi whose anti-SAG message has been linked to two recent
mosque demonstrations. Some believe that al-Faqih's message
has regained a niche inside the Kingdom thanks to economic
problems such as inflation (Reftel D). While it is unclear
how much support al-Nimr might garner among disaffected Shi'a
or what may happen if the feeling of stagnancy continues
and/or grows, it is clear that for now the most prominent
voices in the EP Shi'a community believe it is in their
interest to work with the SAG, and reject calls that may lead
to conflict. END COMMENT.

(APPROVED: KINCANNON)
FRAKER

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