To police, Labad was a violent “menace” wanted for shooting two police officers, killing another man and attacking a police station. To human rights advocates, he was a peaceful protester silenced by the government for demanding equal rights for the country’s oppressed Shiite Muslim minority.
The killing of Labad and the two teens marks an escalation in Saudi Arabia’s worst civil unrest in years. The sectarian uprising in the kingdom’s oil heartland has been an often-overlooked front in the wave of revolts remaking the Middle East. But it has become increasingly violent, and the implications for the region are vast at a time when Saudi Arabia and Iran are jockeying hard for supremacy.
Saudi officials assert that the protesters are nothing more than Iranian puppets bent on destabilizing the Saudi economy — a charge the demonstrators vehemently deny.
Shiites, who form a majority in Iran, have long been treated as second-class citizens by the ruling Sunni elite in Saudi Arabia. They account for about 10 percent of the country’s 28 million people and are concentrated here in the Eastern Province’s industrial center, sandwiched between the vast Arabian desert and the glistening Persian Gulf.
The death toll here — 14 civilians and two police officers since the beginning of last year — is small compared with those in recent rebellions in other Arab countries, especially the civil war in Syria. And, unlike elsewhere, protesters here are not demanding the overthrow of their government. They want long-denied basic rights: equal access to jobs, religious freedom, the release of political prisoners.
But in a nation where even peaceful protests have long been banned, the clashes between police and demonstrators have become a big concern for King Abdullah and his ruling family.
“The government realizes it has a major problem here,” said Jafar al-Shayeb, chairman of the municipal council in Qatif, a Shiite-majority town close to Awamiya, near the oil wells and office complexes that constitute the hub of an oil industry that brought in $300 billion last year.
But the government’s response has largely been to dismiss the protests as illegitimate.
Mansour al-Turki, spokesman for the powerful Interior Ministry, said in an interview that the Saudi protesters “have connections to Hezbollah,” the Iran-backed Shiite militia in Lebanon. Such assertions infuriate supporters of the protesters.
“Show me one person here who has any connection to Iran. Where is the evidence? There is none,” said Waleed Sulais of the Adala Center for Human Rights, a group formed last year in Qatif to document abuses against Shiites.
The government has worked hard to play down the escalation in tensions between the Shiites and the Sunni-led government in these waterfront towns, just across a 16-mile causeway from Bahrain.