DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Saudi Arabia is demolishing centuries-old homes in a Shiite town, leveling a historic district that officials say has become a hideout for local militants. The destruction has sparked shootouts in the streets between Saudi security forces and Shiite gunmen and stoked sectarian tensions that resonate around the region.
The violence in the Shiite 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 Shiite-led rival Iran have spiked in recent weeks. Also, Saudi Arabia and its allies severed ties with neighboring Qatar, demanding among other things that it cut off ties with Iran.
Bulldozers began demolishing al-Awamiya's historic district on May 10, with plans to tear down several hundred homes.
At least six security officers, six Shiite gunmen and a number of civilians have been killed in al-Awamiya's skirmishes, shootings and bombings this year, most of them in the weeks since 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 spokesman Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki told The Associated Press 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 armored vehicles, frequently coming under fire from militants. Police say a South Asian construction worker was killed by an improvised explosive device targeting the demolition workers.
Activists say security forces frequently open fire in the streets. A two-year-old girl died when shots were fired at her 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 Shiites 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 U.K. The demolition is "erasing the identity of the area and its history," he said. Residents in the town declined to speak with the AP directly about the ongoing unrest, citing fear of repercussions.
Three United Nations experts on cultural rights, adequate housing and extreme poverty have also criticized the demolition, saying the "destructions erase 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."
The Saudi government says the district's roughly 500 houses are being demolished because they do not comply with safety standards. It also accuses Shiite militants of using al-Mosawara's narrow alleys as "a safe haven" to "plan and carry out their terrorist operations."
The kingdom has implicitly accused Iran of being behind al-Awamiya's armed Shiites, saying they are acting "under instructions from abroad."
The demolition sends a message to Iran that its perceived efforts to destabilize the Gulf are being met head on by Saudi security forces, said Christopher Davidson, author of several books about Shiites in the Gulf, as well as the latest, titled "Shadow Wars." He argues the demolition of al-Mosawara is also a way for the kingdom to demonstrate it is doing something about Shiites and bringing them into subordination.
"This as much about destroying identity and heritage as it is about catching wanted criminals," he said.
Al-Awamiya, a town of 25,000-30,000 residents, has long been a flashpoint of tensions with the kingdom's Shiites, who complain of discrimination at the hands of Saudi Arabia's ultraconservative Sunni clerics.
Prominent Shiite 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 Shiite-led sit-ins in nearby Bahrain. Al-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 — a 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 June 1 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.
Davidson says he too would need to see more evidence that armed groups in al-Awamiya have access to RPGs. He says the police report serves to bolster the official narrative of a foreign-backed insurgency.
Al-Saeed says the demolition of al-Mosawara is intended to deepen rifts between Sunnis and Shiites in Saudi Arabia.
"It's meant to keep us (Shiites) hated and sow fear among the public against Iran."
Follow Aya Batrawy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/ayaelb