International Journal of Middle East Studies

Security: Challenges and Impacts


Toby Craig Jones a1
a1 Toby Craig Jones is a graduate student in history at Stanford University; e-mail:

For seven dramatic days in late November 1979, bloody street violence between state security forces and thousands of frustrated Shiites rocked the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. Sparked by the Saudi regime's brutal repression of those peacefully celebrating Ashura—the annual mourning of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein—the fury resulted in an unknown number of dead and wounded. 1 Among the destruction, demonstrators burned the British bank in Qatif as well as the offices of the Saudia National Airline. They destroyed state-owned vehicles, attacked police, raided the coast guard office in the village of al-Awamiyya, seized weapons from soldiers, and even occupied the old city in downtown Qatif, from which they held off the Saudi military for days. One report relates that a group even burned a toy store owned by a government official. 2 Women as well as men marched in anger. The security forces, which included 20,000 Saudi National Guard, cordoned off the major roadways, particularly those in Qatif, Sayhat, and Safwa to localize the protest, control the flow of information, as well as to prevent nearby oil facilities from being destroyed. Reports swirled that soldiers fired on virtually any public gathering of people, including at least one funeral procession in Safwa, forcing the mourners to flee and abandon the corpse in the street. State and hospital officials refused to release other bodies from the morgue for burial until the uproar quieted, leveraging the dead as blackmail. The National Guard relied on the heavy firepower of helicopter gun ships for crowd control, turning the area into a deadly conflict zone characterized by terror, hostility, and fear.