Since Saturday’s execution of four Shi’ite Muslims in Saudi Arabia, hundreds of thousands of the minority sect have marched nightly in protest, and their anger could herald wider unrest.
The execution of one of them, dissident cleric Nimr al-Nimr, caused an international crisis as Shi’ite Iran and its allies responded angrily, but it also caused upset in his home district of Qatif, where many saw his death as unjustified.
‘People are angry. And they are surprised, because there were positive signals in the past months that the executions would not take place. People listen to his speeches and there’s no direct proof he was being violent,’ a Qatif community leader said by phone.
The protests in Qatif, an almost entirely Shi’ite district of about a million people in the oil-producing Eastern Province, have been mostly peaceful, though a fatal shooting and gun attacks on armoured security vehicles have also taken place.
Qatif is located near major oil facilities and many of its residents work for the state energy company, Saudi Aramco.
Past incidents of unrest have not led to attacks on the oil industry, but a bus used by Aramco to transport employees was torched after a protest on Tuesday night.
Footage of marchers shouting ‘down with the Al Saud’ and other anti-government slogans, corroborated by witnesses contacted by Reuters, is circulating on social media along with video clips showing shots fired at armoured cars.
‘I did not hear shooting last night, but I heard it a lot on the two nights before,’ a resident of Nimr’s home village, al-Awamiya, told Reuters by phone. Like others Reuters spoke to in Qatif, he asked that his name be withheld.
Shi’ites have long complained they face entrenched discrimination in a country where the semi-official Wahhabi Sunni school regards their sect’s beliefs as heretical. They say they face abuse from Wahhabi clerics, rarely get permits for places of worship and seldom get senior public sector jobs.
IS threatens executions
Meanwhile, Islamic State has threatened to destroy Saudi Arabian prisons holding jihadists after Riyadh’s execution of 47 people including 43 convicted al Qaeda militants.
The militant group, which has claimed responsibility for attacks in the kingdom and stepped up operations in neighbouring Yemen, singled out the al-Ha’ir and Tarfiya prisons where many al Qaeda and Islamic State supporters have been detained.
‘The Islamic State always seeks to free prisoners, but we calculate that the ending of the issues of prisoners will not happen except with the eradication of the rule of tyrants, and then destroying their prisons and razing them to the ground,’ it said in an article posted online on Tuesday.
An Islamic State supporter killed himself in a car bomb at a checkpoint outside Ha’ir prison near Riyadh in July.
While Islamic State and al Qaeda are rivals who have condemned each other on ideological grounds, they are both united in enmity towards Saudi Arabia, which has declared them terrorist groups and locked up thousands of their supporters.
Riyadh’s mass execution on Saturday included four Shi’ite Muslims, among them prominent cleric Nimr al-Nimr, a move that heightened sectarian tensions with Shi’ite power Iran. But analysts say it was mostly meant as a message to militant Sunnis.
Islamic State has claimed responsibility for a series of bombings and shootings in Saudi Arabia since November 2014 that have killed more than 50 people, most of them Shi’ites but also more than 15 members of the security forces.
Saudi security officials say the group’s supporters inside Saudi Arabia mainly act independently, depending on Islamic State for only limited logistical help and advice, making them harder to detect, but also less capable of attacks on well protected targets.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Pensinula (AQAP) threatened in December to ‘shed the blood of the soldiers of Al Saud’ if its members were executed.
AQAP is the Yemen-based wing of the global militant movement and was formed by local jihadists and veterans of al Qaeda’s earlier uprising in Saudi Arabia from 2003-06, for participation in which most of those executed on Saturday were convicted.