A couple of weeks ago I suggested on this blog that the uprooting of thousands of villagers in southern Saudi Arabia last month was not just for safety reasons following an attack by Houthi rebels from Yemen and that the "temporary evacuation" was likely to become permanent. I was right: the evacuees will not be going back.
The Saudi authorities are using the conflict to implement a long-term plan for securing their border by creating uninhabited buffer zones on either side of it. Securing their border is one thing, but their chosen means for achieving it is appalling, though so far no one seems to be making a fuss about it.
Civilians living in the border area were ordered to leave their homes immediately, some of them at night, leaving behind most of their belongings and, in many cases, the livestock that provided their income. Some were robbed on the way to emergency camps.
In the first few days, some 240 villages were cleared of inhabitants and, according to some reports, that number has since increased to 400 villages.
We still don't know exactly how many people the Saudi authorities have driven from their homes. Thousands are currently living in a tented camp which, if Saudi press reports are to be believed, is almost like a holiday resort.
Visiting the "war front" yesterday, King Abdullah confirmed that the evacuation is to be permanent – by announcing that 10,000 new housing units will be built within a year for "deserving" people who have been "relocated". There was no mention of compensation for the loss of belongings or livelihoods.
This high-handed behaviour by the authorities probably won't surprise anyone, but it's disgraceful nonetheless. And whatever security it brings to the border area is likely to be offset by the disaffection it generates among an already-marginalised community within the kingdom.
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 3 December 2009.