quotes How did Al-Arabiya deal with events in Awamiyah and avoid falling into the trap of sectarian discourse?

17 March 2023
Short Url
Updated 17 March 2023

How did Al-Arabiya deal with events in Awamiyah and avoid falling into the trap of sectarian discourse?

The events that took place in the province of Qatif, eastern Saudi Arabia, specifically in the town of Awamiyah, in the years between 2011 and 2017, were not easy for the citizens and residents of the governorate.

The marches of the people that took to the streets — influenced by the slogans of the Arab Spring — turned into riots and armed movements, during which automatic weapons and Molotov cocktails were used.

These movements led to confrontations between youth groups, whose identities were unknown at first, and the security forces, which sought to impose security without clashing with the demonstrators.

However, the shooting, which resulted in many injuries and deaths, pushed the Saudi government to take firmer measures, labeling these movements as acts of terrorism rather than riots.

The events took a dangerous turn with terrorist groups targeting security men and official headquarters, and many gunmen wandering openly in the streets, specifically in the town of Awamiyah.

The incidents that took place in Qatif governorate fueled debates on social media, specifically on Twitter, which became a space for sectarian insults between Sunni and Shiite extremists.

The platform also witnessed incitement campaigns launched by takfiris against Shiite Saudis, accusing them of being “traitors” and “agents of Iran,” an accusation that Shiites denied.

TV channels such as Safa and Wesal were also promoting sectarian discourse against Shiites in Saudi Arabia, fueled by the terrorist operations of armed cells that were intensifying in Awamiyah.

With each operation, extremism intensified. Daesh also carried out terrorist operations in Saudi Arabia, targeting mosques and husseiniyas belonging to Shiite Muslims.

It is fortunate for Al Arabiya network that Al-Muhaini and the previous directors were journalistic figures with liberal civil orientations, free from extremist thought, and having a secular view of the meaning of the state.

Al-Arabiya followed events cautiously as it sought balance following the experience of Bahrain, where tensions had risen in February 2011.

Abdulrahman Al-Rashed was the general manager of Al-Arabiya at the time, and I resumed my work at the channel in early 2012, following up on the Shiite file and what was related to Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq and the Arab Gulf countries in general, and the Shiite political Islamic movements in particular.

Al-Rashed was very cautious while following developments on the ground, especially as a result of the fierce fighting that took place in Syria, the participation of Iranian experts, Lebanese Hezbollah forces, and Shiite and Sunni militias.

All of this made the news coverage more sensitive, and the importance of selecting words which did not inflame the situation became paramount.

I was presenting a set of recommendations and statistical research as well as a perception of the situation, specifically the “Shiite Citizens in the Gulf,” so I participated in suggesting the right guests as well as less sharp, more comprehensive and objective angles.

When Adel Al-Toraifi succeeded Al-Rashed, I persevered with the same tasks. In 2015, Al-Toraifi was named Saudi minister of information and journalist Turki Al-Dakhil took over the management of Al-Arabiya and Al-Hadath channels until 2019.

During Al-Dakhil’s era, events in the eastern Saudi province of Qatif escalated due to the increased activity of terrorist groups.

The terrorists targeted security personnel and intensified recruitment activities. A number of young men gathered in the old area of central Awamiyah, called the “Musawara.” This area, with its narrow alleys and small adjacent houses, formed the stronghold of the militants.

The security forces arrested the cleric Nimr Al-Nimr in 2012, on charges of “stirring up strife and sedition in the town of Awamiyah, resisting arrest along with those accompanying him and opening fire at a security patrol.”

The security forces had followed the rules of engagement and retaliated with gunfire which injured Al-Nimr in his thigh. Al-Nimr was taken to hospital for treatment and in 2014 he was sentenced to death. He was executed in January 2016, along with 46 others, on terrorism charges.

The Saudi authorities took the decision in 2017 to expel the militants from the Musawara. They evacuated civilians from the area, providing them with temporary housing, and confronted the gunmen.

A complex process began, and the terrorists were expelled from the Musawara. A number of them were killed, others fled, the rest were arrested. The old buildings were removed, the affected citizens and homeowners were compensated, and the implementation of the development project Central Awamiyah was initiated.

These events were closely followed by Al-Arabiya. I was in contact with colleagues in the newsroom to ensure accurate coverage away from religious sensitivities.

I used to send them statements issued by national and religious figures in Qatif rejecting violence and terrorism; communicate with guests in the region in order to host them; and suggest certain points of interest to public opinion in the Kingdom regarding the course of events in Awamiyah, seeking as much as possible to avoid sectarian narratives and inflammatory speeches.

Al-Dakhil left Al-Arabiya and became the Saudi ambassador to the UAE capital, Abu Dhabi, in 2019. He was succeeded by Dr. Nabeel Al-Khatib.

The channel continued to deal with the “political Shiism” file, but this time from a different perspective and angle, namely the development of events in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon.

The channel continued its mission and role, a role that Al-Khatib and his predecessors assumed, taking the suggestions or observations I sent seriously and dealing with them professionally.

Saudi journalist Mamdouh Al-Muhaini was appointed as the new general manager of Al-Arabiya in October 2019.

It is fortunate for Al-Arabiya network that Al-Muhaini and the previous directors were journalistic figures with liberal civil orientations, free from extremist thought, and having a secular view of the meaning of the state.

They believed that the relationship between the different components of society is based on diversity, coexistence and mutual respect, and this modernist intellectual framework reflected positively on the channel’s policies, and made it distance itself from extremism, hatred and sectarian narratives.

Al-Muhaini, also dealt with religiously complex files calmly, away from the pressures of social media.

I wrote several sensitive items, one of which was about Lebanon’s Hezbollah training a group of Saudis in its own camps. When dealing with these various files, Al-Arabiya always sought to renounce incitement and sectarianism.

Starting with Al-Rashed, and including the periods of Al-Toraifi, Al-Dakhil, Al-Khatib, and Al-Muhaini, and based on my personal experience and my knowledge of the details of what is going on in its corridors, Al-Arabiya has always endeavored to be a civil, professional platform, away from sectarian polarization. It believes that “terrorism has no religion.”

It also strongly believes that the mission of the network is to be a platform for enlightenment and modernization, offering a space to present a civic culture away from religion. This is the message that it has always spoken and will continue to spread.

Hassan Al-Mustafa is a Saudi writer and researcher interested in Islamic movements, the development of religious discourse and the relationship between the Gulf Cooperation Council states and Iran. Twitter: @Halmustafa