Saudi to redevelop flattened Shiite town
AWAMIYA - Posters of sumptuous villas and palm-fringed boulevards hang in the battle-scarred old quarter of Awamiya, symbols of a controversial Saudi plan to redevelop the Shia-majority town which triggered months of deadly clashes.
Saudi Arabia prides itself on stability in a wider Middle East torn apart by conflict and strife, but Awamiya -- on the kingdom's oil-rich east coast -- has a longstanding reputation of resistance to Sunni rule.
The latest wave of violence erupted in the summer when authorities began tearing down the neighbourhood of Musawara, a walled area dating back to the Ottoman Empire, saying its labyrinthine streets and maze-like structures had become a breeding ground for "terrorists".
The demolitions prompted militants who chafe under Saudi rule to clash with government forces, bringing death and destruction on a scale that evoked comparisons to a war zone.
The outer walls of buildings and mosques are constellations of bullet holes. Mangled carcasses of burned-out cars lay strewn across its once-vibrant streets. Broken roller shutters expose mouldering jars of jam and cookies in a scorched grocery store.
A government official who gave a rare tour of Musawara drew a triangle in the sand with a twig to describe the fighting.
"Terrorists," he said, pointing at the apex of the triangle and "government forces" at the base.
"In between, house, house, house," he said, explaining how pitched battles between the opposing sides wrought destruction on the neighbourhood.
In August, the government announced the end of a three-month campaign to flush out gunmen from Musawara. Protest messages on walls bearing insults to the government were scrubbed.
"This is not a Shia-Sunni problem; this is a terrorist problem," the official said, revealing a cell phone image of a bullet-ridden government bulldozer targeted by snipers in the neighbourhood.
"We target anyone who is dangerous for the country -- Shia or Sunni."
- 'Tired, tired, tired' -
Awamiya, a town of around 25,000 people, has seen bouts of unrest since 2011 when protesters emboldened by the Arab Spring uprisings called for an end to perceived discrimination of Shia minorities.
Saudi Arabia's Shiite community makes up an estimated 10 to 15 percent of the country's population of 32 million.
Awamiya was also home to Nimr al-Nimr, a fiery Shia cleric and government critic who was executed last year on terrorism charges, sparking widespread outrage and leading to renewed tensions with regional rival Iran.
"We hope Awamiya will be restored to its former glory," said Mohammed Ali al-Shoyoukh, an elderly resident who recently returned to the area after the fighting subsided.
"Honestly, we are tired, tired, tired," he said in the presence of the government official.
The exact number of fatalities from the clashes is unclear.
Human Rights Watch reported in August that more than a dozen people were killed, including Saudis and foreigners, in addition to five armed militants.
The interior ministry said that 28 members of the security forces were killed in the wider Qatif region, which includes Awamiya, since the outbreak of unrest in 2011.
- 'Unique heritage' -
The government, meanwhile, is pressing ahead with the multi-million-dollar plan to redevelop the area.
The town's acting mayor Essam al-Mulla gave a video presentation of his blueprint to transform the wasteland with glass-fronted villas, fountains and shopping malls, shaded by verdant palm fronds and bordered by manicured lawns.
The construction was supposed to start three months ago, but was delayed because of fighting.
"It will now take two years to complete," he said.
The cost of the project is unclear but Mulla said the compensation package alone for 488 Musawara homes slated for demolition would cost around 800 million riyals ($213 million).
He brushed aside criticism from the United Nations that the destruction would erase the neighbourhood's "unique regional heritage", saying that efforts were in place to maintain ancient structures including traditional wells.
Despite the recent unrest, he said, a majority of residents supported the redevelopment as most homes were unsuitable for habitation.
- Uncertain future -
"Awamiya's (residents) want government investment in their communities, but more than that they're demanding an end to discrimination," said Adam Coogle, a HRW researcher.
"Saudi Arabia's violent approach to destroying the Musawara neighbourhood and the many allegations of harm to residents during the process are unlikely to reassure Saudi Shia that the state has their best interests in mind."
But the government official dismissed that view, saying the latest unrest ended in part with the support of local residents, many of whom spied on militant hideouts, leading to a number of targeted killings and arrests.
"There are still some terrorists at large, but their number is small," he said, pointing at a school inside Musawara that he claimed the militants occupied as a launchpad for sniper raids.
But government forces themselves face allegations of occupying a public school, firing into populated areas and shutting down clinics and pharmacies to deny militants a chance to seek medical treatment, according to activists cited by HRW.
An activist in Awamiya said a tenuous calm had settled over the area, with random episodes of "arrests and harassment" still rattling residents.
"The town has a heavy security presence and is still surrounded by concrete walls and checkpoints," he said, adding that the blockade was having an impact on farming and fishing communities as well as local merchants.
"The situation has calmed down but the future looks uncertain."