Saudi Shi’ites fear new unrest after spy arrests

Al-Awamiyah is a small village of shabby houses, narrow streets and dilapidated palm groves that has earned a big reputation as the centre of unrest among Saudi Arabia’s Shi’ite Muslim minority.

In two years of persistent protests in Awamiyah and other parts of Qatif district on the Gulf coast, 17 people have died in unrest as Shi’ite youths took to the streets demanding equal
treatment from the Sunni Muslim-dominated government.

Big protests erupted in Qatif in early 2011, inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings sweeping the region and feelings of solidarity with Shi’ites in neighbouring Bahrain. These drew Qatif into a region-wide contest for influence between Shi’ite Muslim Iran and Sunni Arab states such as Saudi Arabia.

Most Saudis adhere to the rigid Wahhabi school of Sunni Islam that deems Shi’ism as heretical, and some members of the majority fear the Qatif Shi’ites’ first loyalty is to Iran rather than their own kingdom.

By contrast, the Shi’ites proclaim their loyalty to Riyadh and say they want an end to what they regard as neglect amidst the oil wealth of Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province where they live.

Awamiyah became known across the country as Saudi media reported on what it simply called “rioting” in the village and the surrounding Qatif district.

After several months of relative calm, some residents fear more unrest resulting in a police crackdown. This follows the arrest of 16 Shi’ites accused of spying for Iran and the first hearing in the trial of an Awamiyah cleric who may face execution.

“The government is dealing with this as a security threat, not as a political issue. Shia demands are not big. They are achievable and for not much cost,” said Jafar al-Shayeb, a Shi’ite community leader and former elected head of Qatif municipality.

After the espionage arrests last month, 37 Shi’ite religious leaders in the kingdom accused the government of raising sectarian tension to distract attention from small protests staged by some members of the Sunni majority.

On April 4 hundreds marched through the urban area of Qatif, activists’ videos showed, demanding the release of Nimr al-Nimr, the cleric whose arrest in the summer of 2012 led to demonstrations in which three people died. The videos could not be independently verified.

“Two years ago the only demands were to release prisoners. Now the protests demand full equality. The more force the government uses, the bigger the demands grow,” said a Shi’ite activist, who requested anonymity.

That view is not shared across Qatif, however, where there is a lively debate about the wisdom of demonstrating as opposed to working with the government to address issues of  concern, and over the size of the protest movement itself.

“We have sectarian problems, we have to admit that. But most of these problems are from individuals, not the government,” said Nabih Ibrahim, who was Shayeb’s deputy on the municipal council. “We try to solve the negative issues with dialogue.”