Saudi Execution Stokes Tensions

Saudi Execution Stokes TensionsSaudi Execution Stokes Tensions

Demonstrations erupted across the Middle East on Sunday as Muslims protested Saudi Arabia’s execution of prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr.

Demonstrations took place in Bahrain, Turkey, Pakistan and northern India. Protesters in the Iranian capital, Tehran, broke into the Saudi Embassy early Sunday morning, setting fires and throwing papers from the roof before being dispersed by police.

By Sunday afternoon, crowds of protesters had gathered outside Saudi embassies in Beirut and Tehran, and protests were expected in al-Nimr’s hometown of Al-Qatif in eastern Saudi Arabia, AP reported.

Al-Nimr’s execution adds a rancorous new chapter to the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. Here’s a look at the aftermath and the regional implications:

  Who Was Sheikh Nimr?

Al-Nimr, who was in his 50s, was a widely revered Shia Muslim cleric from eastern Saudi Arabia who was convicted in Oct. 2014 of sedition and other charges and sentenced to death. He was an outspoken government critic and a key leader of Shia protests in eastern Saudi Arabia in 2011.

He was also a critic of the government of Bahrain, where a Sunni-led monarchy suppressed protests by Shias who make up the majority of the tiny island nation. Saudi Arabia sent troops to help Bahrain crush the uprising; concerned it would spread and destabilize other Arab Persian Gulf countries.

Al-Nimr, however, also spoke out against the government in Syria.

He directly criticized the Al Saud ruling family for its domestic policies and forcefully spoke out against individual royal family members. Al-Nimr did not deny the political charges against him, but maintained he never carried weapons or called for violence.

  Why Is His Execution Important?

His death is seen by some as a warning to anyone thinking of calling for reforms and wider political freedoms in Saudi Arabia. His death also strikes a sensitive chord for Saudi Shias who are discriminated against by the authorities in the kingdom where many ultraconservatives Sunnis view Shias as heretics.

Several Shia mosques and places of worship were targeted by Sunni extremists in 2015 in eastern Saudi Arabia, despite attempts by security forces to clamp down on the self-styled Islamic State terrorist group’s supporters who have also targeted police.

Al-Nimr’s execution came as a surprise to even his own family, his brother Mohammed al-Nimr told AP.

Despite harsh verdicts against government critics, activists are typically given long jail sentences even after initial appeals that uphold death sentences.

His death is expected to further exacerbate the proxy wars for regional supremacy being fought across the region.

  How Will This Impact Sunni-Shia Relations?

Upon Al-Nimr’s death, Iran’s Shia clerics lashed out at Saudi Arabia, which is founded upon an ultraconservative Sunni ideology known as Wahhabism. Many extremist Wahhabis regard all Shias as heretics.

Iran’s Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei warned Riyadh of “divine revenge” and both Saudi and Iran summoned each other’s diplomatic envoys in protest. Saudi Arabia later announced it was severing diplomatic relations with Iran.

The Saudis have been vying for leadership of the Muslim world since Iran’s 1979 revolution. The US war in Iraq further enflamed religious and ethnic tensions by leading to a Shia-led government in Baghdad and a crucial shift in the sectarian balance of power in the region.

After Arab Spring protests erupted in 2011, Saudi Arabia and Iran openly supported the opposite sides of the Syria conflict. They also support opposing political groups in Lebanon, Iraq and Bahrain.