One of the most strategically significant areas of Saudi Arabia is its Eastern Province. Most of the country's oil and natural gas resources are clustered there, and the region borders all of the kingdom's Gulf Cooperation Council allies (including some mired in disputes with Riyadh, such as Qatar). Moreover, the province is culturally significant since it is home to most of Saudi Arabia's Shiites, who make up about 10 to 15 percent of the country's total population. Shiite activism advocating greater autonomy and recognition of rights is commonplace in the area. And while these activities are mostly peaceful, there are small militant cells in the region that have sought to violently buck the government's control.
Looking Eastward to Qatif
Saudi Arabia has long aimed to keep unrest and insecurity in the Eastern Province in check. Since May, this imperative has been especially clear in the small Old City of al-Awamiyah, Qatif. For nearly three months, authorities have been tearing down buildings in the 400-year-old Musawarah district of Qatif, one of the country's main Shiite population centers. Prior to beginning its clearing operations, Riyadh issued eviction notices to the estimated 6,000 families living in the densely packed, 20-acre residential area of the district. In the months since, fighting has broken out between Saudi forces and the residual residents who refuse to leave.
Now, satellite imagery obtained by Stratfor's partners at AllSource Analysis has helped to shed light on the current status of the district. The images reveal the clear and profound destruction wrought by the government's leveling of structures in the area, which newly released photographs from major news organizations have further corroborated. But the satellite imagery also shows that the damage has been limited to a smaller section of the city than images widely shared on social media initially indicated.
Riyadh's Imperative: Secure, Then Renovate
Saudi Arabia claims it is conducting the ongoing operations in Musawarah for two reasons: renovation and security. When the clearing began in May, the Saudi government released glossy images revealing plans to eventually renovate the district with new homes, retail spaces, parks and parking lots. Riyadh also reportedly offered to relocate families for the duration of the renovation. Indeed, many of the buildings in the district are in poor condition and could benefit from new infrastructure.
But the first step and top priority of the Saudi forces' "project to develop [al-Awamiyah]" has been to deny haven to "terrorists" and destroy buildings used by militant cells. For years Qatif has seen sporadic shootings between security forces and militants, as well as attacks with improvised explosive devices against Saudi police; Saudi intelligence points to the Musawarah neighborhood as a source of those operations. Over the past three months, reported gunfire and rocket-propelled grenade attacks have suggested that there are militants fighting to keep the district under their control. However, in the imagery obtained on Aug. 7, no shell craters were visible in the areas of heavy destruction. Barriers (possibly semi-permanent), armored personnel carriers and many destroyed buildings were evident, though. Authorities claim they are nearing the end of the first phase of operations, and that many suspected terrorists have been apprehended or killed.
A Strategic Clearing
To Shiite activists and media networks, Riyadh's operations are perceived as a "siege" on the homes and mosques of Saudi Shiites. From their perspective, not only is the bulldozing of buildings in the Old City an attempt to erase Shiite cultural heritage, it is a sharp and unwanted reminder that Riyadh is ultimately in charge of the area. Furthermore, activists have claimed that not all of the buildings Saudi officials are clearing are unoccupied. The sensitive issue centers on the country's enduring Shiite-Sunni tensions but is exacerbated by local religious groups' shared grudges and opposition to Riyadh's leadership.
On a regional level, the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran is still tense. And though most Shiite activists in the Gulf states disavow any links between Tehran and their own pushes for greater autonomy, there have been reports of some small militant cells in Saudi Arabia acquiring weapons and materiel from ships in the Persian Gulf. Riyadh is committed to preventing Tehran from gaining any footholds in the kingdom by supporting its Shiite community. So regardless of the supplies Iran may or may not be sending to Shiite militants, Saudi Arabia will do everything it can in its Eastern Province to deny them safety. For now, that entails using any means necessary to clear out the old district of al-Awamiyah.