The execution of a prominent Shia cleric, Ayatollah Sheikh Nimr Baqr al-Nimr, by the Saudi authorities on January 1 along with 47 others has led to a dangerous exacerbation of tensions between the Saudi monarchy and Iran. The execution of Sheikh Nimr, whose only crime was calling for a peaceful struggle against the authoritarian regime in Riyadh, has accentuated the dangerous sectarian divide in West Asia. In 2015, 157 people were put to death in Saudi Arabia. Since King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud assumed the throne in the beginning of 2015, public beheadings and executions have increased at an alarming rate. More Saudi citizens have been executed in the past two years than in the previous two decades. Only three of those executed along with Sheikh Nimr were fellow Shia. All the others allegedly belonged to extremist Sunni groups such as Al Qaeda and Daesh (Islamic State). One of the Shia prisoners executed was a minor at the time he was tried and convicted.
Sheikh Nimr was arrested by the Saudi authorities in 2012 after he criticised the monarchy in neighbouring Bahrain for its harsh suppression of its Shia majority. Before that, he had also been fearlessly calling for equal rights for Saudi Arabia’s Shias, who constitute around 15 per cent of the population. Shias are mostly concentrated in Saudi Arabia’s oil-producing east. In his sermons, Sheikh Nimr spoke out against resorting to violence by saying that protesters should be willing to sacrifice their lives for a cause. “Our strength is not in weapons; our strength is in martyrdom,” he said in one of his sermons. A Saudi court sentenced the cleric to death in 2014 on several charges, including “waging war against God”. What the Saudi authorities objected to were his sermons and speeches in which he railed against the authoritarian government and its relegation of Shias to the status of second-class citizens. The authorities accused of him of inciting secession. The Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, the country’s highest religious authority, sanctioned the execution of Sheikh Nimr, whose case had become a “cause celebre” in the region. The Grand Mufti went to the extent of saying that the authorities were being “merciful” as the cleric’s execution prevented him from committing “more crimes”.
As soon as the news of Sheikh Nimr’s execution was announced, people took to the streets in the Qatif district of the Eastern Province holding portraits of the cleric and chanting “down with al Sauds”, as the ruling family is known in the region. There were protests in many other parts of the region and the world, including India. The government in Iraq condemned the execution. Former Prime Minister of Iraq Nouri al-Maliki, who still wields considerable influence, condemned Saudi Arabia’s “detestable sectarian practices”. He said “the crime of executing will topple the Saudi regime”. Syrian Information Minister Omran al Zoubi described the execution as “a reflection of the policies of the disturbed and oppressive al Saud regime”. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, in a speech, said that the execution showed “that any hope for Saudi rational behaviour has ended. ….when a regime loses its mind, that means it has reached the abyss.”
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed his “dismay” and said that all the governments in the region should take immediate steps to de-escalate the sectarian strife. The European Union said the execution raised serious concerns “regarding freedom of expression and the respect of basic civil and political rights”. The Barack Obama administration issued a mild statement calling on the Saudi government to respect human rights. There was no condemnation of the execution of Sheikh Nimr, although the United States’ Secretary of State John Kerry had tried to dissuade Saudi Arabia from going ahead with the execution.
Whenever Saudi Arabia is in the dock, the U.S. has chosen to look the other way. Despite its declining political and economic fortunes, Saudi Arabia, like Israel, continues to be the U.S.’ most trusted ally in the region. The U.S. is helping Saudi Arabia in its brutal and illegal war in Yemen. The Obama administration, despite conveying its misgivings about this war, is going ahead with the $1.29 billion weapons deal it signed in 2015 with Riyadh. Both Washington and Riyadh remain committed to regime change in Damascus. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zaraf has accused the Saudi government of arming, training and financing terrorist groups in the region and outside. “Let us not forget that the perpetrators of many acts of terror, from the horrors of September 11 to the shootings in San Bernardino and other episodes of extremist carnage in between, as well as nearly all members of Al Qaeda and the Nusra Front, have been either Saudi nationals or persons brainwashed by petrodollar-financed demagogues who have promoted anti-Islamic messages of hatred and sectarianism for decades,” he wrote in an op-ed column in The New York Times . Despite the West being aware of these misdemeanours, Saudi Arabia was elected to the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in 2013. The U.N. Resolution that established the UNHCR states that “the members elected to the Council shall uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights”.
Blowback in Iran The most severe blowback following the execution of Sheikh Nimr was felt in Iran. The Islamic Republic’s Supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned that the “unfairly spilled blood of the martyr” would invite “divine retribution” on the Saudi leadership. Khamenei pointed out that “the oppressed scholar had neither invited people to an armed movement, nor was he involved in covert plots. The only act of Sheikh Nimr was outspoken criticism.” There were spontaneous protests in many Iranian cities after the announcement of the execution. In Tehran, a protest outside the Saudi embassy went out of control. Before the police could intervene, a section of the protesters ransacked parts of the embassy and set fire to an office in the embassy. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was quick to criticise the attack on the embassy, blaming some Iranian “extremists” for the incident.
Saudi Arabia was quick to seize on the provocative act of a small group of protesters and announced the snapping of diplomatic links with Iran. It prevailed on some of its Gulf allies to downgrade their diplomatic ties with Iran. Many Iranian commentators admit that the embassy burning incident has allowed the Saudi authorities to divert attention from the emotive issue of the execution of Sheikh Nimr. “Saudi Arabia sees not only its interests but also its existence in pursuing crises and confrontations and attempts to resolve its internal problems by exporting them,” the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman said.
Since taking office in 2013, President Rouhani has striven to improve relations with Saudi Arabia. But the Saudi rulers have not reciprocated and have in fact hardened their diplomatic and political stance against Tehran. The late King Abdullah, according to WikiLeaks transcripts, had urged the U.S. to “cut off the head of the snake” by launching military strikes against Iran. The Saudi authorities have tried every trick in the book to undermine the historic U.S.-Iran nuclear deal signed in 2015. The deal is the West’s tacit recognition of Iran as a regional power. When sanctions against Iran are completely lifted in the near future, it will once again emerge as an economic powerhouse.
Although Saudi Arabia has now formally, on paper, reconciled to the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal, there have been ongoing attempts by it to draw Iran into a military confrontation. With its game plan in Syria failing, Saudi Arabia tried to draw Iran into the quagmire in Yemen. The Iranian government said Saudi military planes deliberately targeted its embassy in the Yemeni capital Sana’a in the first week of January. Javad Zaraf alleged that Saudi proxies had targeted Iran’s embassies in Pakistan and Lebanon in the past three years.
Sheikh Nimr was executed three weeks before the peace talks on Syria were to begin. Immediately after the execution was announced, the Saudi authorities declared that they were ending the short-lived ceasefire in Yemen. The war in Yemen has killed more than 6,000 civilians, mainly because of the indiscriminate use of Western-supplied firepower by Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Gulf. Among the munitions used are the banned cluster bombs. The U.N. has warned that the use of cluster bombs constitutes a war crime. The Saudi-led alliance has so far targeted more than a hundred hospitals.
The manufactured crisis with Iran also helps the Saudi authorities to divert domestic attention from the serious problems the country is facing. Rutgers University Professor Toby Craig Jones, an expert on the region, wrote in an article in The New York Times that over the past decade, the Saudi authorities had turned to Iran and the Shias every time they needed a scapegoat. “Anti-Iranian and anti-Shia sentiment has long existed among religious extremists in the kingdom but today they are at the heart of Saudi Arabia’s national identity,” he wrote. The continuing collapse of oil prices has been grim news for the country’s economy. The kingdom is dependent on oil for 91 per cent of its revenues.
A week before Sheikh Nimr’s execution, the Saudi government had announced a deficit of $100 billion for its 2016 budget. The war in Yemen is costing the Saudi exchequer $6 billion each month. Saudi Arabia has also pledged to heavily subsidise the Egyptian economy. The wealth gap between the rich and the poor is growing in the kingdom. The unemployment rate continues to be high. “The kingdom faces a potentially perfect storm of low oil income, an open-ended war in Yemen, terrorist threats from multiple directions and an intensifying regional rivalry with its nemesis, Iran,” wrote Bruce Reidel, a former senior Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) analyst with vast experience in the region.