Saudi Arabia is demolishing centuries-old homes in a Shiite town that can further escalate tensions between the kingdom and the Islamic Republic of Iran, its arch-rival in the region.
Associated Press reported on June 27 that the demolition began on May 10 and soon caused violence in the streets of the Shiite town of al-Awamiya. Earlier in May, a few other media sources had also reported about the demolitions and the ensuing violence in the town.
Tensions between Riyadh and Tehran reached an all-time high in January 2016 when the Saudi government executed a senior Shiite ayatollah, Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, who was from al-Awamiya.
That was met with a round of fiery speeches by Iranian leaders aimed at Saudi officials followed by the storming of of Saudi Arabia's diplomatic mission in Iran – and eventually, the severing of ties.
Demolition of the historic homes in a majority-Shiite-populated area sends a strong message to Tehran, which has so far been silent about the issue.
However, Iran has frequently unleashed its rhetoric against Saudi Arabia since the early June terror attacks in Tehran. Last week in a rare gesture, Iran offered the Saudis help after an armed attack against the Grand Mosque in Mecca.
Al-Awamiya is a town of 25,000-30,000 residents in eastern Saudi Arabia. So far more than a dozen people have been killed by both security forces and Shiite gunmen, according to AP in the clashes due to the ongoing demolition.
Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki told The Associated Press that "terrorists in al-Awamiya... have increased their armed violence" since the start of the "development project in al-Mosawara."
Security forces patrol the town's streets in armored vehicles, frequently coming under fire from militants. Police say a South Asian construction worker was killed by an improvised explosive device targeting the demolition workers.
The Eastern province of Saudi Arabia has a substantial Shiite population and since the Arab Spring it has become the scene of civil unrest and armed attacks.
Activists say security forces frequently open fire in the streets. A two-year-old girl died when shots were fired at her parents' car, a shooting that activists blamed on police.
Both countries have so far kept accusing each other of supporting terrorism, interfering in the affairs of other countries and enticing sectarian war between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.
As a result, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei now regularly rebukes the House of Saud for being “tribal, reactionary, brutal, medieval and corrupt” among other things.
In response, some Saudi leaders, including the newly appointed Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, have blatantly warned the Islamic Republic that a war between the two sides would be to the detriment of the Iranian side. “We will not wait for the battle to reach inside our borderlines, instead we will take the battle inside Iranian borders,” Bin Salam has said.