The escalating crisis in Saudi Arabian-Iranian relations is going to impact many countries in numerous ways. For years Saudi Arabia and Iran’s geopolitical rivalry has fuelled bloodshed in many corners of the Islamic world from Lebanon to Afghanistan. However, Riyadh’s decision to execute Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr at the start of this month, the Iranian response, and the political fallout have raised the Middle East’s sectarian temperatures to the highest level since the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.
Knowing that al-Nimr’s killing would meet an angry response from Iran and Shi’ite communities in several continents, what drove Saudi Arabia to carry out his execution? Why have numerous Sunni-ruled states in Africa and the Middle East sided with Riyadh and what are their stakes in this crisis? How may this escalating tension impact the prospects for peace in Syria and Yemen? Which actors in the region have the most to gain or lose from the political and social fallout? Earlier this month, Gulf State Analytics (a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consulting firm) sat down with Middle East expert Cinzia Bianco to discuss these complicated issues.
Below is the interview.
For many years, human rights organizations have strongly condemned Saudi Arabia’s high execution rate, particularly with respect to grossly unfair trials and public beheadings. Yet, no execution in Saudi Arabia has ever exacerbated sectarian strife and geopolitical tension across the Middle East to the extent that the killing of Sheikh Nimr Biqr al-Nimr did. Why did this execution foment so much rage within Shi’ite communities from New York City to Kashmir? What is the significance of al-Nimr’s killing?
Executions play an integral in role Saudi Arabia’s penal code. Many in the kingdom regard them as an acceptable form of punishment for grave crimes. However, the execution of 47 convicts, which Saudi officials announced on January 2, was unique for two reasons.
First, it was the largest number of people executed by Saudi Arabia in a single day since 1980. Second, 43 of them were Sunni terrorists, mostly linked with al-Qaeda, but the other four were Shi’ite dissidents, including the prominent cleric Nimr Baqir al-Nimr. Riyadh officials thereby equated al-Qaeda militants with Shi’ite dissidents. Many Shi’ite communities across the world view being linked to their most despised enemy, Sunni jihadists, as extremely offensive.
Additionally, many considered al-Nimr to be the moral leader of Saudi Arabia’s Shi’ite opposition movement based in the restive Eastern Province, home to the vast majority of the kingdom’s Shi’ites. Therefore, the cleric’s execution was intended to send a message to the kingdom’s Shi’ite minority that subversive dissenters will receive the harshest punishments. To many Shi’ites, this execution symbolizes oppression by Sunni rulers, and it recalls their sect’s founding myths and the Shi’ite narrative of being a persecuted group.
Finally, many Iranians deeply respected al-Nimr. Riding this public sentiment, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei immediately responded to the cleric’s execution, declaring al-Nimr a shahid (martyr). This declaration significantly fuelled outrage from many Iranians, including the hundreds who stormed Riyadh’s diplomatic missions in Tehran and Mashhad in response to the cleric’s beheading.
It is important to note that over the years, Saudi authorities have usually arrested clerics of al-Nimr’s standing in Saudi Arabia and sought to pressure them into abandoning their political activism, rather than killing them. Thus, the decision to execute al-Nimr was considered highly provocative. The Saudis had already arrested the cleric in 2012 and sentenced him to death in October 2014. But because the authorities suspended his death sentence then, many hoped that the sentence would be commuted this time as well.
The crisis in Saudi-Iranian relations has quickly spread to numerous African and Arab nations. Four of Saudi Arabia’s fellow GCC states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE), plus Comoros, Djibouti, Jordan, Somalia, and Sudan, took diplomatic actions against Iran. We have also heard pro-Riyadh rhetoric from Egypt and Turkey. What incentives do these Sunni-ruled states have to side with Saudi Arabia rather than to remain neutral?
Several factors drove the formation of this de facto Sunni alignment against the Islamic Republic. Among all the states which sided with Riyadh, Bahrain is the only one which completely severed relations with Tehran. Manama’s decision did not surprise the experts. Bahrain’s Sunni leadership has faced continuous turmoil since 2011, when many of the island kingdom’s Shi’ite citizens, who comprise the majority of Bahrain’s population, took to the streets to protest Al Khalifa’s rule. In countering such opposition, Bahrain’s leadership has become increasingly reliant on Riyadh’s strategic and financial support. Not only has Riyadh pledged USD one billion in aid per year for the next ten years, but Saudi ARAMCO also manages the Abu Safa oilfield, the largest Bahraini field. Such support from Saudi is crucial as Bahrain undergoes economic stagnation, and the government relies on oil revenues for at least 80 percent of the state budget.