Saudi Arabia’s execution of 47 Saudi-Shias and their cleric leader, Nimr al-Nimr, has further aggravated Iran and Saudi Arabia relations. Nimr’s death is not just about the Saudi-Shia’s rights movement, but it is the Middle East’s two leading powers’ struggle for power in the region.
Who was Nimr al-Nimr?
Nimr Baqir al-Nimr was a prominent human rights activist who advocated for Saudi-Shia Muslims. This community is are denied equality in wealth distribution, and high ranking positions in the military and government. He spoke out against the autocratic Saudi regime, condemning them of rampant corruption and mass abuse of human rights. Saudi-Shias are persecuted under the staunch anti-Shia royal family. As reported by Frederic Wehrey, the Shias live in poverty while youth are deprived of opportunities.
Nimr was especially popular amongst young people, and he often encouraged them to stand up for equal rights. The cleric was arrested numerous times by Saudi authorities. In 2006 he was detained by the secret police, known as the Mabahith, as he demanded the government to hold free elections. According to an interview released by Wikileaks, he claimed he was abused by his captives.
In 2009, Nimr caused a stir in the Kingdom when he proclaimed the Shia community should break away from the country if they are not treated as equals. He said:
“Our dignity has been pawned away, and if it is not … restored, we will call for secession…our dignity is more precious than the unity of this land”
In response to this threat, the Saudi government launched a crackdown on Shia dissidents and arrested Nimr and other followers.
Nimr also played a lead role in encouraging young people to stand up against dictatorship through non-violence. According to Saudi media, he was arrested in July 2012 for “instigating unrest”. The cleric also went on a hunger strike, alleging he was abused in prison. Two years later, on 15 October 2014, Nimr was sentenced to death on the grounds of ‘seeking “foreign meddling” in the kingdom’, and for defying the country’s rulers.
After this execution, violent protests broke out in Al-Awamiyah in the Qatif region, the hometown of Nimr. Protestors shouted “down with Al Saud” to express their bitter resentment against the powerful Saudi royal family.
Demonstrations also took place in Tehran; protestors attacked the Saudi Arabian embassy with Molotov cocktails while some stormed inside the offices. Shia community members in Iraq and Bahrain also held demonstrations and clashed with police.
Iran-Saudi Arabia rivalry
Sectarian division has played a significant role in the Iran-Saudi Arabia rivalry, and in Middle Eastern geopolitics. In brief, Sunni Islam is the largest branch of Islam, with 1.5 billion followers and 90 per cent of Saudi Arabia’s, Egypt’s and Jordan’s population are Sunni Muslims. Sunnis believe they are the traditional branch of Islam as their teachings are based on the Prophet Muhammad.
There are around 154-200 million Shia Muslims around the world. A majority of Iran’s, Iraq’s, Azerbaijan’s and Bahrain’s population are Shia followers. There is also a significant portion of Shi’ites in Yemen, Afghanistan, Turkey, Syria and the UAE. Shi’ites believe Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet, is the true successor to Muhammad.
The current Saudi government practises Wahhabi-Sunnism, who takes a puritanical view that Shias are infidels and follow the untrue version of Islam. Extremists however, believe Shias should be exterminated. According to Steven Cook from the Council of Foreign Relations, he said Sunnis see Shi’ites as: “at best as heterodox, at worst apostates”.
Iran-Saudi Arabia Relations
Since the Iranian Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, who was a Twelver – the largest branch of Shia Islam – was determined to spread its revolution beyond the Iranian borders. The post-Pahlavi rule in Iran was also anti-West, and Tehran accuses Saudi Arabia of acting as a servile outpost for western interests in the Gulf region. Iran’s growing assertiveness proliferated Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia, who are fearful of Iran’s close relations with Moscow and its nuclear program.
Tensions escalated when Saudi Arabia provided funds to support Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) to suppress the Shia insurgents in Iraq. While Iraq was another competitor for domination in the Middle East, but Riyadh perceived Iran to be the greater threat. Tensions flared again in the 1987 Mecca Incident during a Hajj pilgrimage; Iranian pilgrims held demonstrations against the United States, Soviet Union and Israel. Protestors clashed with Saudi Arabian police which left over 400 people dead.
Citizens in Tehran stormed the Saudi and Kuwaiti embassies, and Riyadh condemned the Iranian government for failing to stop protesters.
Iran and Saudi Arabia came to a temporary alliance in the first Persian Gulf War (1990-1991) when Iraq invaded Kuwait. But hostilities picked up again at the beginning of the 21st century when Riyadh accused Tehran of supporting and arming the Houthi rebels, who are Shia militants operating in Northern Yemen.
What will happen next?
Neither side has indicated they would respond with direct warfare. However, proxy wars will further intensify coupled with political uncertainty. States in the Gulf region have chosen their allegiance; Bahrain announced it will sever ties with Iran while the UAE stated it will reduce diplomatic relations with Tehran.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are the two powerhouses struggling for unilateral control of the Middle East. Saudi Arabia’s exponential wealth has allowed it to purchase sophisticated weapons like the F-15 fighters, and the kingdom has Special Operations Forces who assist in proxy wars and delivering training. On the other hand, Iran boasts a bigger military size compared to the Kingdom, with heavy artilleries that even the United States finds threatening.
Saudi Arabia is also backed by the Western powers who turn a blind eye to the country’s poor human rights record. It is very unlikely Western leaders will hold Riyadh into account for their execution of the 47 Shias, but China and Russia have urged both sides to exercise calm and restraint. The Russian Foreign Ministry said:
“Moscow is concerned about escalation of the situation in the Middle East with participation of the key regional players.”
Already, the two countries stand on opposite sides in conflicts in Lebanon, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria. The Kingdom’s execution of Nimr, seen as the light of hope for Shia-rights, could provoke home-grown Shia dissidents and even more support for movements in Yemen. And in the grander scheme of things, the bitter rivalry spells greater instability and uncertainty in the volatile region.