SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
We don't usually think of the 2011 Arab Spring protests as spreading to Saudi Arabia, but in fact, they did in the oil-rich east of the country. That's home to a large Shiite population that feels less than equal in this largely Sunni Muslim country. Today, their revolt is all but dead. These Shiites, though, now fear a backlash from the current uprising in neighboring Yemen. NPR's Leila Fadel visited a Saudi town that's guarded by police and filed this report.
ABU SALEH: (Foreign language spoken).
LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: A young Shia Saudi activist picks me up just outside the entrance of his town in the mostly Shia province of Qatif in eastern Saudi Arabia. He goes by his nickname Abu Saleh to protect his identity because he fears arrest. About 30,000 people live in Awamiya. It was at the heart of a revolt in Qatif that started four years ago. It's ringed with police checkpoints.
SALEH: I will not go alone to the checkpoint. Usually, what happened in the checkpoint - sometimes they will ask you to check your phone. It's illegal to check your phone. They don't have the right.
FADEL: He says if they find anything on you that shows you're sympathetic with dissidents or human rights activists in Awamiya, you could end up in jail. Several people have been sentenced to death, including a Shia cleric who gave critical sermons of the state. And today, Awamiya is under even more scrutiny, but this time because the Shias across Saudi Arabia are being painted as sympathetic to the Shia rebels in neighboring Yemen. Saudi Arabia is leading the war against those fighters. So when word of an anti-war protest circulated on social media, police moved in, and on April 5 there was a nighttime raid.
SALEH: All the neighborhood got shot; look at this house.
FADEL: Oh, my gosh, there are just gaping holes in the side of the house.
SALEH: Inside the house, all burned out - destroyed; all the house completely destroyed.
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FADEL: Online videos from that night show armored vehicles firing tank shells into the house. It went on for hours. Security forces were searching for an activist who's on a Saudi list of wanted men, but when they didn't find him, the activist's family says police arrested many young men from the neighborhood. The Shias of Saudi Arabia say they're treated as second-class citizens because they don't conform to the strict Sunni interpretation of Islam that defines the nation. They can't hold high-ranking government or military positions, and they can't teach religion in public schools. When the Shias at Qatif started protesting in the shadow of the so-called Arab Spring, they had some simple demands - the release of Shia prisoners and equal rights for all citizens. The government, however, accused protesters in Awamiya of taking up arms and resorting to violence. Four years later, all that's left of the revolt are the signs of the battles that killed it.
SALEH: Look at this house. This is where the shooting start. Look at this car.
FADEL: Bullet scarred homes line the narrow streets. A car destroyed by gunfire and tank shells sits at the entrance of the maze of homes known as The Old City. And despite the oil pipelines that surround Awamiya, it's poor. The buildings are dilapidated and sewage runs through the streets here. Anti-government graffiti is still on the walls, Down with Saud, in reference to the ruling family. We drive to the center of the city where there's a memorial to one of the dead.
SALEH: Here, one of the martyrs fell down. They killed him.
FADEL: Activists here say 28 people have been killed in the province of Qatif in the last four years. Pictures of people who residents say have been killed by police are pasted on the walls throughout the town, and a special section of the cemetery is dedicated to them. The revolt may be muted, but official concern is not. The police station is ringed with concrete barriers; armored vehicles sit outside. It looks like a country at war. Shia Saudis - there are about 15 percent in the country - say they're being painted as the enemy within. Anti-Shia rhetoric is ramping up in Saudi Arabia's state media and its mosques. Recently, a Saudi soldier tweeted that if he entered the province of Qatif, he was ready to kill everyone, including children. State media reports he's under investigation. We leave Awamiya and head to the city of Qatif nearby to meet Tawfiq al-Seif, a Shia community leader and political analyst. He says he's worried about the growing sectarian rhetoric.
TAWFIQ AL-SEIF: Waging war under the religious banner will have side effect. Like, the Shia citizens feel that they are being targeted, and that's what happened.
FADEL: The conflict in Yemen isn't a religious war, he says. It's about regional politics and Saudi security, and it should be depicted that way. Seif argues that Shia Saudis have to try to reform the government from within, no matter how long it takes. Already, the government is beginning to pump money into Awamiya, he says. But the activists of Awamiya say the generations before them tried that and all they got were broken promises. That night, the Shia activist that showed me around Awamiya leaves me a voice message.
SALEH: Hi, you know that you are lucky today. Just when you get out from Awamiya, you know the roundabout, armored police vehicle today just started to shoot at the sky. Just like that without any reason.
FADEL: He says it happens often in Awamiya, a way to intimidate the residents. Leila Fadel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.