Assad Abboud, AFP
Last updated: 5 October, 2011

Riot-hit Saudi town calm after Iran fears

A Saudi Shiite village where protesters clashed with police was calm on Wednesday as a prominent cleric urged his followers to avoid the use of firearms and fingers of blame were pointed at Iran.

“The situation is calm now in the village” of Al-Awamiya in eastern Saudi Arabia, said Human Rights First Society head Ibrahim al-Mughaiteeb, after 14 people — including 11 policemen — were injured in rioting.

At a mosque in the village late on Tuesday, Sheikh Nimr Nimr, appealed on fellow Shiites “not to respond to bullets with bullets,” according to the text of his sermon published online.

Saudi “authorities depend on bullets … and killing and imprisonment. We must depend on the roar of the word, on the words of justice,” Nimr said following two days of clashes between Shiite protesters and security forces.

But Mughaiteeb said “this is the first time” that protesters had used firearms rather than stones and Molotov cocktails.

A video posted on YouTube dated October 4 showed a group of masked men clashing with police in one of the village’s streets as the sound of gunfire rang out.

Another video on the same website showed demonstrators chanting “Down with Mohammed bin Fahd,” the governor of the Eastern Province and son of Saudi Arabia’s former ruler, the late King Fahd.

The interior ministry of the predominantly Sunni Muslim kingdom blamed the unrest on a “foreign country”, in apparent reference to Shiite Iran across the Gulf.

Shiite activists in Arab states of the Gulf are regularly accused of links with their co-religionists in Iran.

“Iran is trying to export its problems to avenge what happened in Bahrain, and reduce pressures on Syria,” Tehran’s Arab ally, said Anwar Eshki, director of the Saudi-based Middle East Institute for Strategic Studies.

Iran is concerned about the possible collapse of the regime in Damascus, steering clear of condemning the bloodshed in Syria where the United Nations says 2,700 people have been killed amid mass protests since mid-March.

In Sunni-ruled Bahrain, authorities backed by Saudi-led Gulf troops in March crushed a protest led by the country’s Shiite majority. The crackdown soured relations between Iran and the Arab monarchies of the Gulf.

Abdulaziz Sager, chairman of the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center, referred to “concrete evidence of Iran’s involvement” in this week’s unrest, including “telephone calls from Tehran that were intercepted” by Saudi Arabia.

This is “a message from Iran to Gulf states after its failure in Syria and its loss of a strategic ally. It will respond .. and we will begin to see escalation in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province,” he said.

The overwhelming majority of the estimated two million Saudi Shiites live in the oil-rich Eastern Province, neighbouring Bahrain, where they complain of discrimination by the government.

Security forces have been deployed and checkpoints set up in the Shiite-populated region since March, said Mugaiteeb.

Sheikh Nimr accused Saudi authorities of “provoking” the protesters by firing on them with live bullets.

But some protesters used guns in the clashes with police, “and we do not accept this. This is not how we operate. This is not in our interest. We will be the losers,” he said.

It was in the people’s “interest” to use words, “a more powerful weapon than bullets” against the far better armed Saudi authorities, he said.

Saudi Arabia, which vowed to deal “strictly” with those it branded as “traitors,” had condemned the unrest as “blatant interference in its sovereignty.”

“Those must clearly state whether their loyalty is … to this country and its (religious) authority,” the interior ministry said.

Tension in the village boiled over Monday as Saudi police arrested two men, both in their 70s, in a bid to force their fugitive sons, accused of taking part in Shiite-led protests, to surrender, according to a Shiite activist.