An Execution that Inflames Sectarian Cleavages Across West Asia

The new year has commenced with the execution of Saudi Arabia’s firebrand Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, the attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran, and the Saudi decision to break diplomatic ties with Iran by asking its ambassador to leave Riyadh in 48 hours.

These events mark the culmination of the steady deterioration in relations between these two Islamic giants over the last five years, poisoned by the infection of sectarianism that has divided West Asia since the Islamic revolution but which has gained resonance since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

In Saudi Arabia, the Shia are said to constitute about 13% of the national population, which makes them a substantial three million or more in the Kingdom. They are concentrated in the oil-rich Eastern Province, where they number 2.6 million in a population of about four million.

The ruling ideology in Saudi Arabia is “Salafism”, a belief-system that demands that all Muslim faith and practice be founded on Islam’s two basic texts, the Koran and the Hadith, the “traditions” of the Prophet. This literalist and restrictive approach sees as kufr (disbelief) all beliefs and practices that are not drawn from these basic texts. Animosity for the Shia and the conviction that they are not Muslim lies at the heart of Salafist doctrine.

In the Arabian peninsula of the 18th century, this belief-system was revived by the reformer, Sheikh Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab. His thinking might have remained a marginal reform movement in the region but for the adoption of its precepts by a prominent local family in the Najd area, the Al-Saud, which affiliated itself with this ideology, and legitimised its territorial conquests and the setting up of its Kingdom by making the rigid tenets of Ibn Abdul Wahhab the basis of its state order. In line with Salafist thinking, Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab accused the Shia of “heresy, apostasy, corruption and a vicious sin”. Thus, hostility to the Shia has remained an integral part of the Saudi state order, with the community being subjected to religious, social, cultural, economic and political discrimination as state policy.

In the wake of the Iranian revolution in 1979, the Shia in the Eastern Province began agitating for reform so that they are treated as equal citizens. In the early 1990s, they associated themselves with the reform movement of Sunni scholars in the kingdom known as Sahwa (‘Awakening’). After the crackdown on this movement from 1994, the royal family reached out to the Shia leaders and promised to release prisoners and end discriminatory policies. But this was done only to split the opposition and no reforms were actually effected.

Saudi policy after 2003

The US-led regime change in Iraq in 2003 and the emergence of a Shia-led government in Baghdad had serious implications for domestic and regional affairs: with Iran now firmly ensconced in Iraq, it seemed to hold sway across West Asia, forming, in the eyes of the Saudi rulers, a “Shia crescent” encircling the kingdom. The kingdom also feared that its own disgruntled Shia community, emboldened by Iran and Shia empowerment in Iraq, would mobilise itself to assert its rights and, in a nightmare scenario, even seek the secession of the Eastern Province.

It is in this context that Saudi Arabia began to play the sectarian card: in Iraq, the kingdom and its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) allies extended full support to the Sunni insurgency led by the vicious jihadi, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who directed his firepower at the Shias with the same vehemence that he did at the US occupation. At the same time, it adopted an “iron-fist” policy against Shia agitations in the Eastern Province and also allowed its clergy to spew venom on the Shia and their beliefs. This is what brought Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr to the forefront of the kingdom’s Shia politics.

Sheikh Nimr (b.1959) came from the village of Al Awaniya near Qatif, the principal Shiite centre in the Eastern Province. After religious studies in Tehran and Damascus, he returned to Saudi Arabia in 1999. Some of his early remarks were intemperate, including seeking Iranian help to promote the secession of the Eastern Province. Later, he denied making them and insisted on wide-ranging reforms to end discrimination. His appeal for “greater dignity” resonated powerfully with the Shia youth who favoured him over the older leaders, who increasingly came to be seen as ineffective and even as agents of the royal family; Nimr on the other hand was “the tiger of tigers”.

The next four years saw an increasing sharpness in Nimr’s rhetoric: the distinguished writer on Saudi Arabia, Robert Lacey, has described his remarks as “positively incendiary – angry, inflammatory and notably uncompromising”, expressing contempt for the older leaders who were in dialogue with the government and calling for the overthrow of the royal family. In 2009, he attacked the government for its violence against Shia demonstrators and said that secession was the only option before them.

The government responded by stigmatising all demands for reform as sectarian and influenced by Iran. This approach continued with Shia demonstrations in the wake of the Arab Spring, when the kingdom permitted its clergy and media commentators to publish vituperative anti-Shia tracts and tweets and demonised Iran for its “interference” in the domestic affairs of Arab states and its policy of “encirclement” of Saudi Arabia in order to obtain the secession of the Eastern Province and establish Shia rule across the region.

The rise and fall of al-Nimr

In late June 2012, Nimr delivered a severe public attack on the Saudi royal family, rejoicing at the death of Interior Minister Prince Naif bin Abdulaziz, and imploring God to take the lives of the “entire Al Saud, Al Khalifa and Assad dynasties”. On July 8, 2012, Nimr was shot by the police as they tried to arrest him. Photographs of him lying bleeding in his car made him a heroic icon for young people across the province, a status he retained throughout his incarceration. He was sentenced to death in October 2014 for encouraging foreign interference in the affairs of Saudi Arabia, disobeying the kingdom’s rulers, and taking up arms against security personnel. The death sentence was carried out a day after the new year was ushered in, in spite of pervasive questions about the fairness of the judicial process, and domestic and international pressure for his release.

Sheikh Nimr’s execution can only be understood as part of Saudi Arabia’s insistence on using sectarianism as its preferred instrument to mobilise domestic and regional support to subdue the demands for political change at home. Externally, its aim – through military interventions in the neighbourhood that are framed again in sectarian terms – is to build a regional order that is congenial to its strategic interests.

Over the last five years, this approach has been successful to the extent that sectarian cleavage is now deeply entrenched both at home and in the region, and demands for reform have been substantially discredited. However, this approach has not yet yielded the anticipated military triumphs in Syria and Yemen, in spite of large-scale devastation in both states. More seriously, the interventions have provided space and opportunity for the proliferation of extremist groups like Al Qaeda and Daesh. Like Saudi Arabia, they derive their inspiration and ideology from the same source, Salafism, but take their understanding of its prescriptions to unprecedented levels of intolerance and brutality.

Sheikh Nimr’s execution has already had a polarising effect in sectarian terms. There have demonstrations in Tehran and Bahrain, two Sunni mosques have been bombed in Baghdad and the Hezbollah chief has described Saudi Arabia as “criminal and terrorist”. There are indications of some official complicity in the attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran, though President Hassan Rouhani has severely criticised it. The execution and the embassy attack will end the behind-the-scenes engagements between Saudi Arabia and Iran said to have been taking place for some time.

A Gulf commentator, Ahmad Obeid Al-Mansoori, had recently written that Saudi Arabia’s policy of conservatism at home and activism abroad had created a mindset in Riyadh of “you are either with us or against us”, propelled by militant Salafism and opportunistic alliances, on the basis of which it was asserting its leadership of the Arab and Islamic worlds. But, Al-Mansoori noted, while the kingdom seemed to be pursuing short term alliances of convenience, mainly to block the ambitions of rivals, it did not have a vision or strategy for long term regional stability.

This shortcoming in the Saudi approach could make itself felt very soon: Nimr’s execution, meant to project an image of toughness to cow down the domestic Shia community and Riyadh’s regional rival, Iran, could in fact mobilise its enemies, galvanise them into agitations and possibly violence, and in time pose a serious threat to the Saudi domestic and regional order.

Talmiz Ahmad is a former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE