The execution of Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr for terrorism in Saudi Arabia has sparked outrage across the Middle East and threatens to escalate to a regional sectarian Sunni-Shiite war raising global security concerns. Saudi Arabia’s decision came as a surprise. The cleric had been imprisoned since 2012 and he was hardly a security threat anymore.
But the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran has been going on on foreign soil by proxy for years and year, both countries using their pawns to destabilize the other’s interests in countries around the Middle East. The Middle East was a bipolar political construction pitting Sunni versus Shiite, with Saudi Arabia and Iran leading the two camps. Politically, it has always been tit-for-tat between Riyadh and Tehran and, unfortunately, this war wasn’t always rational and never put too much price on human lives.
The Iranian-Saudi proxy war
Most of this influence battle has been happening in Lebanon and Syria, and, more recently, in Yemen. When Iran armed and financed Hezbollah as its ally in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia invested in Future Movement as a Sunni political force. When Iran brought Hezbollah on the battle fields of Syria under the pretext of defending Shiite shrines and population, it immediately accused Saudi Arabia of financing the Islamic State and other jihadist factions and even accused Riyadh of forging ISIS together with Israel. As a response the Saudi monarchy financed Salafist brigades in Syria, but also pledged a $3 billion donation to the Lebanese State Army to buy weapons in order to fight jihadist terrorism. The move was meant to shift the public opinion in Beirut that only Hezbollah was capable of facing the jihadist threat coming from Syria, while Lebanon’s army was struggling without weapons. But while Hezbollah was active on the Syrian front making territorial gains, Saudi Arabia’s protégés were suffering from lack of international support, were fighting the government forces and were also being decimated by the Islamic State.
For the Iranian side, the emergence of the Islamic State has always been a Saudi affair and Iran’s officials as well as their regional allies have never ceased to frame the Syrian conflict that way. For the Saudi side and its allies, it was Iran that called the shots in Syria and massacring the Syrian Sunnis. The truth was never an issue; it was all a matter of forming perceptions.
In reality, the Iranian influence in Iraq increased, with Sunnis in the north of the country becoming bitterer at Nouri al Maliki’s discriminatory policies during the second mandate. After the fall of Mosul to the Islamic State in mid-2014, Iran scored more points on the regional front: it started reviving and arming Shiite militias, such as As’aib al-Ahl al-Haq, which fought both in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State and the Yemeni Houthis, which Saudi Arabia believed to be financed and armed by Iran, were gaining control of Yemen.
On top of that, the deal between the US-led P5+1 and Iran over the latter’s nuclear file and the recent verdict of the UN nuclear watchdog that there was no actual evidence that Tehran was still developing a nuclear bomb.
The monarchy of Saudi Arabia, a longtime US ally in the Middle East, woke up to a new regional reality and felt abandoned by Washington’s clear policy of leaving regional matters be solved in the region.
The Shiite Saudi Spring
The execution of Nimr comes within this context: a Saudi Arabia that feels let down by its powerful ally and increasingly threatened and cornered by Iran’s reinforced role in Syria and Iraq. When cornered, one becomes irrational, obstinate and vengeful.
Saudi Arabia’s actual issue with a Shiite rebellion was quite negligible. Shiite Muslims amount to 15 percent of Saudi’s population. They’re not allowed to build mosques or other types of religious centers because their religion is considered heresy. The Shiite participation to economic and political life is virtually non-existent since most are viewed as pawns of Iran.
After the Bahrain revolts in 2011, the Saudi Shiites took indeed to the streets to ask for more religious freedoms. Their protests in 2011-2012 were rather small and short-lived. Protests in Jeddah, Qatif Hofuf, Awamiya and Riyadh were rather small compared to the rest of the Arab countries experiencing turmoil. Nevertheless, the movement was smoldered in its crib. Protesters were shot in November 2011, January and February 2012. Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was wounded in the leg and imprisoned in July 2012, with Iranian affiliated media making a big case out of it, although Iran itself had done the same with opponents of its own theocracy. Nimr was reportedly tortured and started a hunger strike. Dozens other protesters were arrested and detained without charge, according to Human Rights Watch.
The Saudi authorities blamed Iran for the Shiite uprising, accusing the protesters of being “sponsored financially or supplied with weapons and were working as part of an organization.” Saudi Arabia also designated Iran-funded Lebanon-based Hezbollah as a terrorist organization at the same time with the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement whose teachings had led to the politicization of Saudi Salafist circles pinning them against the monarchy. Saudi Arabia wanted to show that it makes no difference between terrorists, Sunni jihadists or Shiite opponents of the monarchy. For authoritarian regimes often call political opponents “terrorists.”
Anxiety and perceived existential threats
Nimr might have as well stayed in prison. He wasn’t a real security threat anymore, nor were the other three Shiites that were executed at his side. But there is a heavy grudge against Iran inside the Saudi monarchy, one that certainly matches Tehran’s own resentment towards Riyadh. Saudi Arabia’s man in Syria, Zahran Alloush, the son of a Syrian Salafist sheikh who lives in Saudi Arabia, was killed on December 25 in a strike on Utaya, east of Damascus. However, in Saudi Arabian official’s view, it is Iran, not the Syrian government that calls the shots. Tit-for-tat.
Saudi Arabia was never submissive to international human rights conventions and neither is Iran. Nimr’s executions is about an irrational, paranoid perception in both Tehran and Riyadh that everything one is doing is to permanently scheme and destabilize the other by any means.
What happened in Saudi Arabia comes from a lot of anxiety over the perceived Iranian threat ahead of lifting the economic sanctions on Tehran. When policy makers in Riyadh woke up one morning and realized the US might not have the kingdom’s back in the regional power struggle, they weren’t happy. The way Washington handled Syria, was a source of frustration for Riyadh. Saudi Arabia doesn’t have choices, there are no other alliances that they can rely on the global level. However, Riyadh is obviously ready to stop appeasing the West and its human rights pressures and does whatever it wants however it sees fit, including staging the biggest execution in its recent history and bombing civilians in Yemen. To put it simply, that’s how one becomes radicalized.