Shadow of executed Shiite cleric looms in Saudi hometown

Saudi woman holds picture of executed Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr

AWAMIYA - The bearded face of executed Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr is on every lamp post along the road leading towards his hometown of Awamiya, in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province.
In the Sunni-majority kingdom where banners of King Salman and other senior royals are widely displayed, the homage paid to Nimr, whose image is also stencilled in black on many walls, is unusual and provocative.
Witnesses around Awamiya, a town of 30,000 in the Shiite-majority Qatif district, gave a rare account of the situation in a centre of minority unrest that has seen repeated security incidents in recent years.
Nimr was a driving force behind protests by Shiite residents that began in 2011 and developed into a call for equality.
He was among 47 people, mostly Sunnis, convicted of terrorism and executed in January.
His death sparked further demonstrations in Awamiya, with burning tires and gunfire, and the town still bears the scars of unrest.
Dozens of tires are piled at one intersection, "ready to close the road" in case of a confrontation with police, said one resident.
A two-storey residential building is pockmarked by fist-sized chunks of plaster ripped away by gunfire.
But Awamiya and surrounding communities are far from no-go zones.
"Normal life" goes on, said the resident.
He nonetheless asked for anonymity because of ongoing tensions, which increased this week when authorities sentenced 15 citizens to death -- most of them Shiites -- for spying for regional rival Iran.
- Oil wealth, ageing walls -
Shiites' longstanding complaints of marginalisation are reflected in the rundown appearance of Awamiya, which is part of the vast Eastern Province containing most of the kingdom's oil wealth.
Paint peels from the aged walls of the town's low-rise buildings which include a small auto garage, barbers and other simple shops, as people stroll or cycle along quiet, winding streets.
An inconspicuous sign beside the road proclaims "Al Awamiya", but is tilting on its white poles.
The town is dimly lit at night and its streets are wide enough only for two cars to pass, a contrast with the multi-lane highways lined with brilliantly lit shopfronts and new buildings in wealthier parts of the Gulf coast.
Mosques and other buildings are built on a more human scale than many others in the kingdom and Awamiya bears more resemblance to towns in southern regions or other relatively less prosperous corners of the country.
Nimr, who Shiites said was a peaceful activist, severely upset authorities in 2009 by calling for Qatif to unite with Shiite-majority Bahrain.
He compounded officials' anger with an online video speech celebrating the death of interior minister Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz.
After Nimr's 2012 arrest, Nayef's replacement Prince Ahmed bin Abdul Aziz said the cleric had "a mental deficiency."
By the mid 20th century, Qatif and other communities which "had once been the heart and soul of commercial and cultural life" on the Gulf coast were marginalised compared with oil-based cities including Damman, the historian Toby Jones wrote.
Saudi Arabia's flashy oil-fuelled growth contrasted, by the late 1970s, with the "grinding poverty" of Shiite areas with limited water sources, according to Jones.
In subsequent years the east has been the focus of development efforts which the government says bring jobs.
On a visit to Eastern Province in November, King Salman inaugurated water, environmental and agricultural projects as well as more multi-billion-dollar industrial plants.
He said "all parts" of his kingdom are enjoying prosperity and security.
- Shootings, bombings -
After protests broke out in 2011, police issued a list of 23 wanted people, many of whom have since been detained or killed in shootouts.
The faces of those whose deaths locals blame on security forces are stencilled in black on the wall of Awamiya's cemetery.
Alongside this unrest, a new type of violence emerged two years ago.
The Sunni extremist Islamic State group -- which views Shiite Muslims as heretics -- began a campaign of bombings and shootings that has killed more than 40 Shiites in Eastern Province since 2014.
Data from activists show 25 Shiites are on death row allegedly related to incidents in Qatif since 2012.
Three more got death sentences last month for firing at police patrols, the Arab News reported.
And at least eight policemen have been shot dead since 2014 in Awamiya and Qatif, where police stations are protected by unusually heavy security with concrete walls or protective barriers.
Leaving Awamiya and returning to the nearest main road, witnesses saw three black armoured cars pass with blaring sirens, their red-and-blue roof lights flashing.