Updated Sept. 1, 2016 8:40 a.m. ET
WAMIYA, Saudi Arabia—At first sight, this dusty Saudi town looks like a war zone.
Tires are piled up at key intersections, to be set ablaze as a signal should Saudi security forces try to venture into the maze. “Death to al-Saud” is scribbled on walls and lampposts. A government checkpoint on the main road leading here, a target of occasional attacks, is ringed with Iraq-style blast walls.
Part of the overwhelmingly Shiite agglomeration of Qatif on Saudi Arabia’s Gulf coast, Awamiya has long been a flashpoint of anti-government sentiment, in part because it was the home of Nemer al-Nemer, a popular cleric known for his fiery sermons against the House of Saud.
Mr. Nemer’s execution in January sparked mass protests across the Shiite world, turning the bearded cleric into a global symbol of Shiite oppression. It also led to the sacking of the Saudi embassy in Tehran. That violence, in turn, has prompted Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies to sever diplomatic relations with Iran, escalating the sectarian conflict that is tearing the region apart.
But, while passions still rage elsewhere, here in Awamiya and in surrounding towns a Shiite insurgency that many predicted would result from Mr. Nemer’s death has failed to materialize. While Awamiya and some parts of Qatif have seen sporadic shootings of security personnel, before and after the January execution, life goes on relatively normally. Saudi Arabia’s critical oil industry nearby hasn’t been affected.
In part, that’s because local Shiite leaders—aware of just how vulnerable their community is in a Sunni-majority country where many clerics consider Shiites to be heretics or worse—have chosen to tamp down the tensions, and to keep the younger hotheads in check. Following Mr. Nemer’s death his brother, Mohammed, has taken the mantle of Awamiya’s informal leader.
“A lot of young people were hoping for a revolution. But, from the first hour, I told people that they should be quiet, that they should not use violence against the government. I believe in the peaceful way, which is a powerful weapon by itself,” Mr. Nemer said in the Awamiya farming supplies warehouse that he owns, streets outside bedecked with his dead brother’s portraits.
“What we are asking for, we ask for everyone in Saudi Arabia, not just for us here: We are against corruption, and we are for women’s rights, for elections, against sectarianism.”
In a date grove nearby, a younger militant shook his head in resignation. Only a small percentage of the local Shiites still believe in the revolution, he lamented. The majority, he added wistfully, are either under the influence of traditional religious leaders who preach nonviolence and calm—or are simply too afraid to act.
There are good reasons to be afraid. The Saudi government has been pitiless in repressing Shiite dissent here in the Eastern Province, home to most of the kingdom’s oil.
Many local clerics and activists who protested against the widespread discrimination of Shiites in the kingdom have been detained in recent months. Mohammed al Nemer’s son, Ali, was arrested when he was 17. He is currently on death row for his role in the protests that erupted in the province following the 2011 Arab Spring.
Shiite militants in the area are “not different from ISIS-related people. Most of them have some sort of criminal background. They do not hesitate to use guns and attack innocent people. Even for the local people, if they think you cooperate with the police, you will be their target,” said Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki, the spokesman for Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Interior.
For all its woes, Gen. Turki added, Awamiya is not representative of Saudi Arabia’s broader Shiite community.
“We just have a problem in a particular village, Awamiya. They have been trying for years to take it to a wider scale and to use this sectarian hatred to have other Shiites in the kingdom join them. But it’s not working.”
One factor in the government’s favor is the changing demographic makeup of the Eastern Province. While the region was majority-Shiite as recently as two decades ago, the arrival of Sunni migrants lured by the oil economy has reversed the balance.
Compounding the predicament of the Shiite community is the fact that Saudi Shiites are being increasingly targeted by Islamic State. The Sunni extremist organization, which considers all Shiites to be apostates, carried out several deadly bombings of Shiite mosques in Eastern Province in recent months. A failed attempt took place in recent days.
“The general impression is that the government is unable to protect us. But nobody sees another way. Everyone thinks it is better that we cooperate with the government to prevent these attacks,” said Tawfiq al-Seif, a prominent Shiite community leader in Qatif.
Another local activist put it differently.
“We all say ‘Death to al Saud,’ but we don’t actually mean it now,” he said. “We know that if al Saud were to disappear today, we would have deal with something much worse.”
Tags: Anti-Shiite Feelings, Awamiya, Daesh, executions, House of Saud, Iran, Islamic state, Nemer al-Nemer, Qatif, Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia’s oil industry, Saudi security forces, Saudis, Shiite Unrest, Yemen