The Covid-19 pandemic has created another opportunity for the Saudi state to intensify attacks on the country’s Shi’a minority, writes Ameen Nemer.
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On 8 March 2020, the same day that Italy went into lockdown, the Saudi regime started to lockdown Qatif, a city in the Eastern province with a Shi’a Muslim majority.
Although lockdown was the right thing to do anywhere to stop spreading the virus, the previous history of discrimination against the Shi’a community in Saudi Arabia and the absence of the medical staff next to the security forces at the checkpoints raised concerns about the regime’s motives.
Media platforms in Saudi Arabia have exploited the coronavirus pandemic and used it as an opportunity to attack Shi’a Muslims both locally and internationally by calling them “non-Muslims” and “enemies” recruited to kill Sunni Muslims.
Despite the fact there were some who opposed this rhetoric, it is clear that Saudi Arabia is also infected with the disease of sectarianism and the regime is the main source, spreading it through the education system, the media and other means.
The media in the first days were overwhelmed by hatred and just like Trump, ignored the technical term Covid-19 and called it the “Chinese virus”. Saudi writers described those who travelled to Iran as “agents” who became infected “on purpose”, claiming they are “terrorists” who should be put on “trial” (the judiciary in Saudi Arabia is just a joke anyway). This political exploitation of the pandemic turned the Shi’a community into a punching bag.
The majority of the infected cases are not from Qatif, however, and they did not come from Iran but from Egypt, Italy, Turkey and many other countries. However, arrivals from Turkey, a country which accused the Saudi regime of murdering dissident Jamal Khashoggi, have not been attacked like arrivals from Iran, who are less infected, according to official statistics.
Moreover, Chinese people have not looked down on the people in Wuhan, where the outbreak began. Nor did the Southern Italians look down at their Northern fellows. It is another story in Saudi Arabia where people in Qatif were demonised.
Saudi Arabia is also infected with the disease of sectarianism and the regime is the main source
Some in the Shi’a community are seeking shelter and protection from the regime which sponsors hatred towards them. Of course, in this game of social engineering, the Saudi regime must feel satisfied that it has achieved its goal. It has always been ready to scapegoat and accuse some of betrayal in order to silence them and make them more obedient and submissive.
Travel from Saudi Arabia to Iran is banned for political reasons, but some Shi’a Muslims – mostly older people – do visit Shi’a religious sites in Iraq and Syria.
This has been the case for years, but during the coronavirus crisis, Saudi regime has exploited it and politicised it. A video showed a group of women pilgrims from Saudi Arabia locked up in Lebanon begging the Crown Prince to have mercy on them by allowing them to go back home.
Another video showed a group of women calling on him to release their children from prisons. He responded to the first but he played dead to the second and I assume he will not consider stopping the war on Yemen.
Beyond attacking the Shi’a community, the pandemic has provided a chance for the regime to legitimise itself in front of the population by spreading the propaganda about what it is doing to tackle the virus.
Yet, this an unelected regime which has ruled by the sword since 1932 and thus has no choice but to protect people as it controls all the country’s resources. Any failure to do so would count against the regime more than anyone else.
By 28 March 2020, there were 1203 registered cases of Covid-19 in Saudi Arabia. However there are an estimated 5000 unregistered cases. The shortage of medical staff will soon be clear.
May people stay safe everywhere, especially the most vulnerable. May the infected recover soon and my thoughts go out to the families who have lost their loved ones.