According to interviews conducted by Britain’s Independent newspaper, Awamiyah – a 400-year-old town in the eastern Qatif province home to around 30,000 people – has been surrounded by siege barricades put up by the security services since attempts to evict residents turned violent on 10 May.
Since then, the situation has rapidly deteriorated. Locals report at least 25 people have died in shelling and sniper fire, and pictures purportedly of streets covered in rubble and sewage look more like a scene from Syria than an oil-rich Persian Gulf city.
The Independent spoke to – one armed protester inside the besieged city, and two peaceful pro-Awamiyah activists now living outside the country – is of an untenable humanitarian situation.
“I was a peaceful protester, most of us in Awamiyah were, until the government decided to list us as wanted terrorists. All we did was maintain calls for reform. Because we were not afraid of the regime, they targeted the whole city,” an armed anti-government activist said.
Residential houses raided, babies tortured
Regime forces raided his house at the beginning of the siege, he said, beating his wife, pointing weapons at his five-year-old daughter and lifting his eight-month-old baby girl high and threatening to drop her.
“They told my little girl, ‘We will kill your father and throw his head between your legs."
“We had no choice. Defending our lives and our women is a duty. Houses have been destroyed by bombs, heavy shooting, RPGs... everyone is a target.”
Awamiyah was sealed off with roadblocks three months ago after the local population refused to comply with security forces bringing in bulldozers and other construction equipment on orders to demolish and redevelop the ancient area.
The Independent cited Adam Coogle, a Middle East (West Asia) researcher for Human Rights Watch as saying “I’ve documented conflict in Saudi Arabia before but nothing like this. I’ve seen protests, but nothing this militarized”.
“The details are thin on the ground but what is clear is there are heavy clashes going on between the state and its citizens in a Saudi city right now, and that’s pretty unprecedented.”
Many residents in Awamiyah are too afraid of shelling and snipers to leave their homes, despite the fact in many areas the water mains and electricity have been disconnected, leaving them without fresh water or air conditioning in the punishing summer heat.
Ambulances and sanitation vehicles have had difficulty accessing the town after being held up at checkpoints, contributing to the unlivable conditions, several reports say.
Awamiyah was also the home of Nimr al-Nimr, an influential Shiite Islamic scholar who was executed on trumped-up terrorism charges last year. His death led to demonstrations worldwide.
Conflict not sectarian
The current stand-off in the town cannot be reduced to a sectarian issue, said Ali Adubasi, the Berlin-based director of activist group European Saudi Organisation of Human Rights, who himself fled the country in 2013 after being detained and tortured by the regime several times, The Independent reported.
“When they killed Sheik Nimr, they also executed four Shiites and 43 Sunnis, so there is more to the situation than that.
A US-based activist says hundreds of people have since fled – by some counts up to 90 per cent of the local population, leaving around 3,000-5,000 people inside. While some accommodation in nearby towns has been provided, it has been criticized as not nearly enough to cope with the expected demand.
In May the UN condemned the redevelopment plans, accusing the authorities of attempting to forcibly remove residents from Awamiyah without offering adequate resettlement options in an operation which threatens the “historical and cultural heritage of the town with irreparable harm”.
The outside world, however, remains largely unaware of the turmoil consuming Saudi Arabia’s east.