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Cablegate: Calm Prevails in the Eastern Province As Shia Commemorate

VZCZCXRO5938
PP RUEHDH
DE RUEHDH #0014/01 0230841
ZNY SSSSS ZZH
P R 230841Z JAN 10
FM AMCONSUL DHAHRAN
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 0349
INFO RUEHZM/GCC C COLLECTIVE
RUEHDH/AMCONSUL DHAHRAN 0470

S E C R E T SECTION 01 OF 02 DHAHRAN 000014

NOFORN
SIPDIS

DEPT FOR NEA/ARP JOSHUA HARRIS AND JEREMY BERNDT

E.O. 12958: DECL: 1/23/2020
TAGS: PGOV PHUM PREL INR SA YM BA
SUBJECT: CALM PREVAILS IN THE EASTERN PROVINCE AS SHIA COMMEMORATE
ASHURA

REF: A. A. 09 RIYADH 173
B. B. 09 DHAHRAN 265
C. C. 09 DHAHRAN 295
D. D. 09 DHAHRAN 008

CLASSIFIED BY: Joseph Kenny, Dhahran Consul General, Department
of State.
REASON: 1.4 (b), (d)
Summary

-------

1. (S/NF) An atmosphere of calm prevailed during the Islamic New
Year as Shia of the Eastern Province celebrated Ashura.
Moderate leaders such as Sheikh Hassan al-Saffar drew large
audiences to their lectures during the run-up to Ashura, with a
particularly strong showing by youth. Contacts note that the
inflammatory Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, whose influence has reportedly
dwindled in recent months, is no longer in hiding and is now
under quasi house arrest. Though frustrations persist and
discrimination remains, many Shia in the EP describe the
atmosphere as "calm" and "tolerable." End Summary.

Ashura Marked by Peaceful Commemoration

---------------------------------------

2. (C) On December 27, PolOff traveled to the predominantly Shia
city of Qatif and the outlying Shia villages of Al-Awjam and
Al-Gudaih to observe various Ashura processions. (Note: Ashura
is a Shia day of mourning that commemorates the martyrdom of
Hussein Ibn Ali, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, at the Battle
of Karbala in 680 C.E. During Ashura, Shia religious leaders in
the Eastern Province deliver various sermons to local audiences,
mostly addressing societal issues, though political topics often
receive attention, as well. End Note.) XXXXXXXXXXXX (protect),
a well-connected Shia and trusted Post contact with deep roots
in Qatif, facilitated the visit and interpreted when necessary.
PolOff witnessed a reenactment of the Battle of Karbala in the
village of al-Gudaih--prohibited last year (ref A)--as well as
four different processions where participants, from young
children to the elderly, conducted ritualistic
self-flagellation. (Note: Though potentially bloody, none of
the processions involved actual self-flagellation causing
physical harm. The ritual is meant to demonstrate solidarity
with the suffering of Hussein and his family. End Note.) The
Ashura processions were marked by a busy atmosphere with
numerous spectators, heavy vehicular traffic, and relative calm.
Though a small police presence was visible, mostly for traffic
control purposes, it did not interfere in the processions.

Prominent Scholar A Paragon of Moderation

----------------------------------------

3. (C) On December 23, the sixth day of the Islamic New Year,
PolOff attended an evening lecture delivered by Sheikh Hassan
al-Saffar in his husseiniyya (Shia community center) in Qatif.
PolOff was joined by XXXXXXXXXXXX(protect) and XXXXXXXXXXXX (protect), Vice-President of the XXXXXXXXXXXX and lead engineer for Saudi XXXXXXXXXXXX (ref
b). In attendance were approximately five hundred males, many
of them in their mid 20's and 30's. (Note: Contacts informed
PolOff that females were situated in an adjacent hall, watching
via closed circuit monitor. PolOff is not aware how many
females attended the lecture. End Note.) Al-Saffar's lecture
addressed political violence across the world and the
devastating toll warfare takes on mankind. Additionally, he
spoke about negative influences from television, music, the
internet, and video games and their effect on societal violence.
He concluded his lecture with a powerful discourse on the
martyrdom of Hussein Ibn Ali, bringing many in the crowd to
tears.

4. (C) The hour-long husseiniyya lectures are commonplace in the
Shia community, but more so during Ashura when they take place
on a daily basis, with several lectures offered throughout the
evening by different leaders in the community. (Comment:
Sheikh Hassan al-Saffar is a Saudi Shia reformist leader who has
made significant progress in communicating with Salafi leaders
and other senior officials in Saudi Arabia. He has come out
strongly in favor of the SAG in recent months (ref C) and
preached incessantly on the need for greater minority rights
from the SAG. He advocates peaceful coexistence with the Sunni
majority while cautiously demanding greater tolerance for all
religious practices, as well as increased access to government
positions for minorities. End Comment.)

5. (C) On January 6, Shia contacts sent PolOff excerpts of
various lectures delivered during the Ashura period. Sheik
al-Saffar, among others, spoke on topics such as the
peculiarities of Islamic sects, the need for Muslim unity, and
sectarian discrimination. He emphasized the need to overcome
the prevailing state of pessimism in reaching Sunni-Shia unity.
Al-Saffar also praised King Abdullah's reform initiatives,
noting that issues such as human rights and poverty, previously
absent from the national dialogue, are more prominent under the
King's leadership. Al-Saffar condemned extremists in all
parties, stating that, "among Shias, as well, there are some
religiously extreme individuals; therefore, we have to hold our
responsibility as we call on others to their responsibilities."
Other prominent members of the Shia community, such as Sayyed
Muneer al-Khabbaz, Sheikh Faisal Alawami, and Sheikh Fawzy
al-Saif also delivered lectures. (Note: PolOff did not attend
these lectures but received summarized, translated notes of
their respective discourses. None demonstrated inflammatory
themes or language. End Note.)

A Shia Radical Losing Ground

----------------------------

6. (S/NF) In a recent meeting with PolOff on December 22, XXXXXXXXXXXX and XXXXXXXXXXXX, without prodding from PolOff, disclosed that religious scholar Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr has
returned from hiding in an undisclosed location to his home in
the village of al-Awwamiya, near Qatif. Earlier this year,
after the Medina incident and its aftermath (ref D), al-Nimr
called on Shia to secede from the Kingdom. (Comment: Al-Nimr
had been a minority voice in the Shia community before 2009. As
a result of ongoing state-backed violence and continued
intolerance against the Shia community, al-Nimr's hard line
approach found increasing support in 2009 as he was able to
channel the frustration and discontent of the Shia community.
In al-Awwamiya, a small village north of Qatif and one with a
history of radicalism, he denounced the decision to engage the
state in dialogue and made clear his belief that the Shia will
have to fight in order to achieve a modicum of equality. He
subsequently went into hiding to avoid a state manhunt. End
Comment.) XXXXXXXXXXXX, who also hails from al-Awwamiya and
referred to al-Nimr as his "neighbor," said that al-Nimr is
under quasi house arrest. He added that the SAG chose not to
pursue him further out of concern they would elevate his status.
Lacking political acumen, al-Nimr spoke out too strongly
against the SAG, said XXXXXXXXXXXX, thereby losing credibility and his following.

Comment

-------

7. (C) Though discrimination by the SAG against the Shia
community of the Eastern Province persists, the near-boiling
tensions that followed the Medina incident and mosque closures
throughout 2009 appear to have abated, for the time being (ref
D). This year's Ashura commemoration was marked by calm, with
no reported incidents of harassment by the Saudi authorities or
Salafis. Even the controversial reenactment of the Battle of
Karbala in al-Gudaih--banned last year (ref A)--was permitted
with no visible signs of Saudi authorities except for the
traffic police.

8. (S) Sheikh Hassan al-Saffar's consistent tone of moderation
is a boon to stability in the Shia community of the EP,
especially as Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr's influence, though limited,
appears to have waned. His inclusive message, advocating
greater rights for minorities as a whole, is an important
distinction from past demands for Shia rights specifically.
Al-Saffar is thereby widening the appeal of his message and,
potentially, his following. End Comment.
CG: JKENNY

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