Moment that mattered: Saudi Arabia executes Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr
Sheikh Nimr, a cleric from Saudi Arabia’s eastern province, was seen as one of the most vocal and active leaders of the country’s Shia movement. He backed anti-government protests in 2011, which continued after his arrest by police. Supporters saw his movement as peaceful while others in Saudi Arabia saw him as an instigator of violent behaviour that sought to promote radical political changes. Minority rights for the Shia community in Saudi Arabia have been neglected for a long time: Sheikh Nimr was viewed by many within the Saudi Shia community as a champion of their cause.
Nimr was on death row after having been convicted of ‘foreign meddling’ and ‘disobeying’ the ruler in a special court which tries terrorism cases. He was executed on the same day as 46 others. In the run-up there had been signs of preparation for a mass execution, so it did not come as a surprise [the mothers of several men on death row had rung the alarm when their sons were moved and subjected to a medical examination in prison, which they saw as a sign that the beheadings were imminent.]. My immediate response was that Nimr’s execution would exacerbate the Sunni-Shia divide within Saudi Arabia and within the wider region.
The biggest regional fallout from his death happened in Iran, where protesters stormed the Saudi embassy. Saudi Arabia responded by cutting diplomatic ties with Iran, even though the Iranian leadership widely condemned the actions of the protesters. Iran saw the Saudi move as a disproportionate and unhelpful decision, arguing that they themselves had not cut diplomatic relations when around 400 Iranians were killed in the Hajj stampede in September 2015, despite that fact that the Saudis neither apologised nor gave them convincing explanations for the incident. Iran believes the Saudis wanted to cut ties before the execution, and that the storming of the embassy gave them the excuse they needed.
In bilateral terms, the cutting of ties doesn’t greatly alter an already tarnished state of affairs between the two countries. But it does make it more likely that the countries will stick to their polarised positions when it comes to regional diplomacy. In places like Syria and Lebanon, the deteriorating state of Iran-Saudi relations has a major impact – the worse the relationship between the two countries, the more fragility we’ll see. In Syria the increasing tensions between Riyadh and Tehran contributed to the stalling of the political agreements being promoted by Russia and the US.
I don’t actually think there is an inherently sectarian problem at play between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but the actions of both countries have boxed them in to their sectarian roles. At its core, it’s about spheres of influence and a quest for regional power.
There was a fear that the beheading of Sheikh Nimr would trigger a major retaliation from the Shia minority within Saudi Arabia but this has not yet transpired. For now, there is an unsettled acceptance of socio-economic discrimination against the Shia minority – including arbitrary arrest and exclusion from many government and military posts. But a lot of people see it as a ticking time bomb: the Saudi Shia can only continue under these conditions for so long before turning to violence as the channel to voice their dissent.
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