Street battles raged for hours on Sunday between Saudi security forces and locals in the town of Awamiyah, a hotbed of Shiite activism in the country’s east. According to one of our Observers, the authorities are cracking down on Shiites, who represent a minority in the area, in an attempt to stop them from organising protests over Saudi Arabia’s military operation against Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen. The consequences of global tensions between Sunni and Shiite countries, he says, are now exacerbating divisions at home.
A policeman was killed in Sunday’s clashes, and injuries were reported on both sides. According to a statement from the interior ministry, four militants were arrested during a security raid on Awamiyah aimed at dealing with “terrorist elements” there. They also seized weapons and “communication devices”. The statement said that five people, including three officers, were injured and taken to a hospital. Local residents, however, say that over a dozen residents were wounded.
Awamiyah is located in the eastern Qatif region, which is home to the kingdom’s Shiite minority and the scene of frequent anti-government protests since March 2011. Shiites represent just 10 percent of the country’s total population. They are considered heretics by the country’s Sunni leaders, and are marginalised on multiple levels: religious, economic, and political.
“I heard nearly ceaseless gunfire for hours”
The trouble actually started last Friday. Local Shiite activists were planning to stage a protest in downtown Qatif city [the regional capital] against the military intervention in Yemen. However, they got wind of the fact that the authorities were planning a major crackdown on the protest, so they cancelled it. Security forces deployed downtown nevertheless.
What happened last night was unexpected, however. Without warning, security forces arrived in Awamiyah with numerous armoured vehicles, and started raiding people’s homes. Right away, locals started fighting back. They burned tyres in the streets and blocked roads. Some opened fire on the police. Awamiyah, which is where anti-government protests often start, is full of weapons – including machine guns. I live very close to Awamiyah, and I heard nearly ceaseless gunfire and frequent explosions from 3.30 pm, when the security forces arrived, until about 9pm. It appears both sides were matched in terms of power, which is rather rare; usually the authorities get the upper hand pretty quickly. This time, they clearly struggled. These were some of the most violent clashes in months.
Clashes in Awamiyah on Sunday evening.
According to my sources in Awamiyah, they targeted the homes of known activists. They told me that one of the activists that the security forces wanted to arrest wasn’t home, so they burned down his house. Two other homes caught on fire due to explosions.
One of the houses damaged by the fighting.
It seems to me that this crackdown is a tactic to try to quell calls for more protests over the intervention in Yemen. Between this and the recent nuclear agreement between Iran [which is a Shiite-majority country] and the United States [as well as the P5+1 countries], it seems the authorities are worried that Shiites might rise up and ask for more rights. After what happened in Awamiyah, I think we can expect to see more crackdowns in the region in the weeks to come…