Violence erupts following Saudi demolition of historic Shia homes
Saudi Arabia is demolishing centuries-old homes in a Shia town, leveling a historic district that officials allege has become a hideout for local militants.
The destruction has sparked shoot-outs in the streets between Saudi security forces and Shia gunmen and stoked sectarian tensions that resonate around the region.
The violence in the Shia town of al-Awamiya, which is centered in the Sunni kingdom's oil-rich east coast, adds a new source of instability at a time of increasing confrontation in the Gulf.
Tensions between Saudi Arabia and its Shia-led rival Iran have spiked in recent weeks, with the kingdom and its allies severing ties with neighbouring Qatar, demanding among other things that it cut ties with Iran.
Bulldozers began demolishing al-Awamiya's historic district on 10 May, with plans to tear down several hundred homes.
At least six security officers, six alleged militants and a number of civilians have been killed in al-Awamiya's skirmishes, shootings and bombings this year.
Violence flared as government contractors began tearing down the town's historical center.
The old district is known as al-Mosawara, Arabic for the "walled fortress", named for its 400-year-old walls that protected the area from raiders.
Interior Ministry spokesperson Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki told AP that "terrorists in al-Awamiya... have increased their armed violence" since the start of the "development project in al-Mosawara".
Security forces patrol the town's streets in armoured vehicles, frequently coming under fire from militants. Police say a South Asian construction worker was killed by an improvised explosive device targeting the demolition team.
Activists say security forces frequently open fire in the streets. A two-year-old boy died when shots were fired at his parents' car, a shooting that activists blamed on police.
The sensitive security operation in al-Awamiya now rests with newly appointed Interior Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Saud. The 33-year-old was installed earlier this month at the same time that King Salman declared his own 31-year-old son, Mohammed, as next in line to the throne.
The new interior minister's father, Prince Saud bin Nayef, is the governor of the Eastern Province, where al-Awamiya is located and where most Saudi Shias live.
Though the Eastern Province sits atop most of Saudi Arabia's oil reserves, al-Awamiya lacks basic services like a functioning hospital. It has no major ports. Garbage sits uncollected for weeks on the streets. Youth complain of rampant unemployment. The town is surrounded by checkpoints. Power has been cut to certain quarters.
"It's collective punishment," Ameen al-Nimr said of the situation in al-Awamiya. He left the town in late 2011 at the height of protests there and now resides in the UK.
The demolition is "erasing the identity of the area and its history", he said.
Three United Nations experts on cultural rights have also criticised the demolition, saying the "destruction erases the traces of this historic and lived cultural heritage".
They said in a statement that the Saudi government has "ignored our concerns" and its only response "has been these violent actions".
Riyadh says the district's roughly 500 houses are being demolished because they do not comply with safety standards. It also accuses Shia militants of using al-Mosawara's narrow alleys as "a safe haven" to "plan and carry out their terrorist operations".
Al-Awamiya, a town of 25,000-30,000 residents, has long been a flashpoint of tensions with the kingdom's Shias, who complain of discrimination at the hands of Saudi Arabia's ultra-conservative Sunni clerics.
Prominent Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr rallied thousands in al-Awamiya during Arab Spring protests in 2011, linking their movement for social justice and greater rights with the Shia-led sit-ins in nearby Bahrain.
Nimr was executed last year for his role in the protests. His execution sparked backlash in Iran that led to the ransacking of the Saudi Embassy and a complete severing of ties between the two countries.
The immediate response in his hometown of al-Awamiya, however, was more muted - the result of years of police crackdowns and arrests.
At least 51 people - 30 of them from al-Awamiya - have been killed in related violence in the Eastern Province between March 2011 and 1 June of this year.
The interior ministry says militants there fired a rocket-propelled grenade at police in May, killing an officer.
Local activists say the gunmen are armed locals defending themselves. Activists on the ground deny RPGs were used, according to activist Malik al-Saeed, who fled al-Awamiya in late 2015 over fears of arrest.
Al-Saeed says the demolition of al-Mosawara is intended to deepen rifts between Sunnis and Shias in Saudi Arabia.
"It's meant to keep us (Shias) hated and sow fear among the public against Iran."