A month after Saudi Arabia executed firebrand Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, his home town of Awamiya remains strewn with black flags commemorating his death.
The authorities have dubbed the dilapidated village in the oil-rich eastern province the most dangerous place in the conservative Sunni kingdom, and it bears the scars of confronting the state. Shia slogans are ubiquitous and some buildings are pockmarked with bullet holes. Two armoured personnel carriers stand sentry outside the local security post but the jittery police rarely patrol the streets.
“The people and the government are both waiting, ready to pounce,” said Mohammed al-Nimr, Sheikh Nimr’s brother. “There is only pessimism here now.”
The execution of Sheikh Nimr caused an uproar in Shia Iran and has prompted concerns that unrest within Saudi Arabia’s minority Shia, which claim to be the victim of decades of discrimination by the ruling al-Saud family, could become another front in the worsening regional cold war between Riyadh and Tehran.
The two countries are already locking horns via proxies in the bloody civil wars of Syria and Yemen, and the Saudis fear that Iran could foment Shia unrest and turn the oil-rich province into another Bahrain, where Shia youths have been confronting police on an almost daily basis for the past five years.
Although Awamiya has been calm since Sheikh Nimr’s execution, activists say demonstrations are expected on February 11, following the Shia tradition of commemorating deaths 40 days after burial.
The authorities have refused to return the sheikh’s body, angering his family and residents who believe the decision is intended to stop his grave turning into a shrine, a custom regarded as idolatry by purist Sunnis.
Many in the Saudi Shia community say they feel trapped between state repression and the violence of Isis militants. The jihadis have launched five suicide attacks at Shia religious sites in Saudi Arabia over the past 14 months. Shia activists also say the government is not doing enough to stop anti-Shia hate speech that regularly flares across the country’s social media.
Activists say 28-30 Shia protesters have been killed by the security services since protests broke out in 2011, when the optimism of the Arab spring lured protesters on to the streets to call for more Shia rights.
There is also fear that there will be more executions. The fathers of two of the young men executed alongside Sheikh Nimr protested their sons’ innocence and called for international intervention to stop further executions.
Mr Nimr fears the government will execute his son, Ali, who is on death row on terrorism charges he denies. “I fear they will kill him,” he said. The interior ministry says more executions “cannot be ruled out”.
Elders in Qatif, a Shia town on the outskirts of the eastern oil city of Dammam, continue to call for calm, saying that a descent into violence would damage chances for reform.
“This situation is still very tense,” said one community leader. “But violence won’t benefit the community in any way.”
He accused the authorities of confusing peaceful protest with criminal gangs and a fringe of protesters who since have taken up weapons since the authorities used live ammunition against unarmed demonstrators.
Major General Mansour al-Turki, interior ministry spokesman, denies that any protesters have been killed by the police, but says that 17 policemen and civilians have been killed by terrorists based in Awamiya. He said that three of 23 people on a wanted list were killed while being detained and six remain at large.
“Awamiya is very violent and dangerous,” he said. “Police are being targeted by live ammunition on a daily basis. We are doing our job under strict regulations.”
Sheikh Nimr was uncompromising in his approach towards securing more rights for the Shia within the Sunni state. Most older and richer Shia follow the more moderate cleric Sheikh Hassan al-Saffar, who has sought to establish dialogue with the al-Saud leadership. But while many disagreed with Sheikh Nimr’s hard line, they were nonetheless shocked and angered by his execution, the community leader said.
Sheikh Nimr’s brother, who also follows Sheikh Hassan, called on the al-Saud ruling family to introduce reforms that could ease the Shia-Sunni divide.
“The true solution would come from freedom and democracy — free elections, stopping corruption and rights for women,” he said. But the sectarian divide cuts deeper than ever in the conservative kingdom amid high tensions with Iran.
Shia youths generally back Sheikh Nimr’s uncompromising approach, while Sunnis — who make up 85 per cent of the population — generally supported the Sheikh’s execution.
One activist said that unless there was political progress between the ruling family in Riyadh and the Shia, future violence was inevitable.
“The blood of Nimr won’t wash away silently,” he said.