Urban Encroachment is a Historical Trigger for Shiʿi Outrage in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Metropolis Qatif

By Claudia Ghrawi, Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin

Increased sectarian politics in the Arab Gulf countries have prompted researchers to take sectarianism more seriously as an analytical category “without reducing sectarian identity politics either to an already given essence or explaining it away by factors exterior to sectarianism itself.”[i] Current Shiʿi outrage over the wholesale destruction of neighborhoods in the Qatif metropolitan area, the largest center of Saudi Arabia’s Shiʿi population, which is situated along the Saudi littoral of the Persian Gulf, is usually interpreted within the framework of the regional conflict between Sunni Arab governments and Shiʿi Iran as well as the internal politics of the Saudi regime. However, it may be also understood as symptom of the worldwide phenomenon of unrestrained urban expansion and profit making in the age of neoliberalism, which ties in with questions of citizenship, human livelihood, and cultural identity. The Qatif area has for more than seventy years suffered from the havoc that oil industry and urban encroachment wreaked on local environment and society. Since the discovery of oil in 1938, land has become an object of large-scale price speculation by members of the royal family and local investors. In the process, the former oasis environment gave way to sprawling suburban growth. During the last seven decades, the area’s population grew from approximately 30,000 inhabitants prior to oil industrialization to over 500,000 in 2010.

Image 1

Qatif metropolitan area with the Rams in the upper left quarter.

Rapid urbanization, underdevelopment, and environmental damage featured prominently among the motivations for the Qatif uprising of 1979, which occurred under the banner of Shiʿi Islamism. Present day unrest began with demands for civil rights and legal equality brought forward primarily by Qatif’s youth during the so-called Arab Spring of 2011. It has its local center in the town of ʿAwwamiyya and has emerged around the prominent local leader Shayk Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, whose arrest in July 2012 and execution by the Saudi regime in January 2016 have further fueled the protesters’ outrage. The conflict reached its present peak in May 2017 when the Saudi military began with the bombardment and deconstruction of ʿAwwamiyya’s old quarter al-Musawara, resulting in the displacement of more than 20,000 people and the ongoing siege of the neighborhood. While the Saudi government argues that the destruction of al-Musawara has become a question of security, local activists see this operation as an erasure of local architectural heritage and identity. The question of identity is significant for the sectarian argument: Since the 1979 uprising the town has been stylized as a historical center of Shiʿi resistance, whose struggle against Saudi rule dates back to the rebellion of the local Shaykh Muhammad al-Nimr against Saudi taxation in 1929/30. All this feeds into the logic of sectarian politics which is often stressed by journalists and scholars who see the local trajectory in tandem with the increased conflict between Sunni governments and Shiʿi populations in the region since 2011.  However, a look into the more recent history of the town reveals a more complex dynamic which entwines Shiʿi discrimination and identity politics with the global phenomenon of neoliberal urban restructuration.

In the first half of the twentieth century, ʿAwwamiyya was still a smallish oasis village, located between palm groves and farmland not far from the coast, which was overgrown by mangrove forests. The people of ʿAwwamiyya lived mainly on agriculture and fishing. ʿAwwamiyya’s local economy survived oil urbanization largely unscathed well into the 1990s. This remarkable exception to the prevailing situation in the area became possible due to an astonishing historical circumstance. Already in the late nineteenth century, during the last phase of Ottoman rule over large parts of the Arabian Peninsula, a local leader by the name of Shaykh Salman b. Muhammad b. Husayn al-Faraj al-ʿAwwami bought the land that surrounded ʿAwwamiyya from the Ottoman state and turned it into a vast religious endowment (waqf). The endowment secured the people of ʿAwwamiyya the right to live on and cultivate the land, which is known as Rams, during times of dwindling imperial rule. In the course of the following century, the descendants of Shaykh Salman have repeatedly defended the endowment, and by extension their own role as its administrators, against land claims by the oil company (today’s Saudi Aramco), Saudi princes, and urban investors. Saudi law supported them, as it acknowledged the hitherto unchanged status of the Rams and the prerogatives created by the endowment.

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Qatif 2013, last remains of the old town, photo by Claudia Ghrawi.

This situation changed in 1996 when members of the royal family in a violation of Saudi law sold a large part of the Rams coastal strip to Saudi Aramco. The oil company immediately began with landfilling works along the shore. The ecological destruction of the Rams maritime strip created a strong local outcry against the responsible princes and Saudi Aramco, which resulted in the withdrawal of the oil company from the land reclamation project. One participant in the protest of the enraged people of ʿAwwamiyya, many of whom were fishermen who had lost their source of income literally overnight, was Shaykh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, great grandson of Shaykh Salman and grandson of Shaykh Muhammad al-Nimr. During the following years, the case went on trial until a Saudi court confirmed the superior claim of the people of ʿAwwamiyya to their land. The court decision stipulated the convocation of a committee of local dignitaries, all of whom belonged to the descendants of Shaykh Salman, whose role is to serve as legal guardian of the Rams and to preserve the nearly 1.5 million square meter large endowment against external claims.

However, the burial of the coast under millions of tons of cement has not only severely endangered the old role of Qatif as a regional marketplace for fish and shrimp, it has effectively robbed the people of ʿAwwamiyya of a vital source of income. Furthermore, urban encroachment into the remaining parts of the Rams has accelerated during the past ten years. The northwards growth of Qatif’s suburban area, halted by the Rams for half a century, has finally gained momentum. Municipal governments have repeatedly cut through the complex water irrigation networks and turned former palm groves into wasteland that according to municipal regulations can be claimed for urban construction. In response to local protest, the Saudi government called in a moratorium for the future development of the Rams agricultural area in 2015. Rumours of the sum of 400 million Rial for investment in the preservation of local heritage circulated on the internet. Yet, the situation changed again when the new government of King Salman gained control over Saudi internal politics shortly afterwards.

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Dhow fishing boats in Qatif in 2013, photo by Claudia Ghrawi.

Around that time, two Saudi real estate enterprises appeared at the scene as new investors for the development of the Rams maritime strip. In September 2015, they began auctioning the newly declared real estate property. Bidders in Riyadh paid up to 1,500 Rial per square meter, several times the price that local people can afford to pay in the highly sought after coastal area. In early 2016, the Saudi government executed Shaykh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr. The execution of a Shiʿi cleric had not happened in the kingdom for a long time and surprised many. Consequently, local protest in Qatif rose to new heights. As an answer to continuing civil disorder, the Saudi military began with the systematic destruction of local farms in the Rams under the pretext that they served as hideouts for terrorists. The destruction of al-Musawara began shortly afterwards and since then, the Saudi government has claimed that the neighbourhood had become a refuge for terrorist as well. To no surprise, the investors that aim at rebuilding the destroyed quarter are already ready to take over. In the hometown of some of the most impoverished citizens of the oil rich kingdom a shopping mall and newly built apartment blocks will generate high-end rents for their proprietors in the near future.

Urban encroachment, land price speculation, and the relentless destruction of human livelihood in the Qatif metropolitan area are closely linked to a conflict over ownership and access to land. The latter are stipulated both in customary and Shariʿa law. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the mobilization for the most current protests of Saudi Shiʿa happened around local clerics who take the role of defending what people regard as lawful Muslim practice. While the ongoing conflict gains specific national and regional significance through sectarian claims from various sides, it is essentially rooted in the unhindered and to various degrees state-sponsored profit making in the age of neoliberal urbanization. As such, the case of ʿAwwamiyya is not part of a seeming historical exceptionalism of the Middle East, but bears resemblance to urban resistance movements in other parts of the world.


Claudia Ghrawi works as research fellow at the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient. She is also a PhD student in Modern Middle Eastern History at the Freie University in Berlin. Her research focuses on urbanization processes and popular politics in Saudi Arabia and Syria.


[i] Helle Malmvig, “Coming From the Cold: How We May Take Sectarian Identity Politics Seriously in the Middle East Without Playing to the Tunes of Regional Power Elites,” POMEPS Briefings 28 (January 2016), 8-12.

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