The execution of the popular Shi’a cleric Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi authorities at the beginning of this year has further intensified Sunni-Shi’a sectarian tensions not just in Saudi Arabia but the Middle East generally. The carrying out of the sentence, following convictions for a range of amorphous political charges, immediately provoked anti‑Saudi demonstrations among Shi’a communities throughout the Middle East. More locally, it added to the grievances of the sizable Shi’a minority in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province.
Al-Nimr was known for his vocal criticism of both the Saudi ruling family and the country’s Sunni religious establishment. The extent of his strident anti‑government views positioned him in contrast to other Shi’a leaders such as Hassan al-Saffar, who at various times have participated in cross-sectarian conciliation efforts involving the Saudi government. Al-Nimr’s radical discourse from time to time placed him on the periphery of the country’s Shi’a leadership. But the inability of more conciliatory Shi’a clerics to secure genuine social and political change for the Shi’a population, as well as the constant anti-Shi’a sentiment fueled by government-aligned Sunni clerics, had in the years before his death provided space for the re-emergence of his rejectionist ideals.
In 2009, an incident in Medina, which saw clashes between security forces and Shi’a pilgrims from the Eastern Province, triggered a new wave of restiveness among the Shi’a population. The state sided with the security forces and blamed the pilgrims for the clashes. Disillusioned with the lack of support for their community, many Shi’a began to question their status in the kingdom. Among them was al-Nimr, who outlined demands for religious freedoms for the Shi’a. This increased his popularity among Shi’a adherents.
During the Arab uprisings that commenced in 2011, which included further protests in the Eastern Province, al-Nimr became a symbol for Shi’a resistance, especially among Shi’a activists. Protests would often feature placards and banners depicting al-Nimr.
It was al-Nimr’s speeches during this time that led to his 2012 arrest and ultimate execution. He criticised Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Bahrain in 2011 on behalf of the Sunni royal family there. He also made provocative and essentially celebratory remarks upon the June 2012 death of Crown Prince Nayef. It was the latter incident that immediately prefaced his arrest.
Many of Saudi Arabia’s influential Sunni clerics were outraged by al-Nimr. Those clerics tend to preach a doctrine of obedience to rulers; al-Nimr’s speech after the death of Nayef was thus intolerable. This intolerance was clearly also felt within the Saudi government, notoriously sensitive to criticism and ready to suppress dissent.
It was not surprising, therefore, that al-Nimr’s execution, along with those of 46 others including radical Sunni militants, was endorsed by a number of high‑profile Saudi clerics. Among them was the Grand Mufti, Abd al-‘Aziz Al al-Shaykh, who decreed that the government had acted in accordance with Islamic law. To the government’s supporters, and particularly among the Sunni clerical establishment, al-Nimr was an extremist who was in substance little different from the violent Sunni terrorists who had also been executed.
There are some Sunni clerics in Saudi Arabia, such as the prominent Salman al-Awdah, who do not participate in hostile anti‑Shi’a rhetoric and who have at times supported conciliatory efforts with Shi’a leaders such as al-Saffar. But even for these Sunni moderates (for want of a better word), al-Nimr was too radical.
Al-Nimr’s execution is yet another deterioration in the already fragile sectarian environment in Saudi Arabia. The situation in the Eastern Province was getting worse even before al-Nimr met his end. In November 2014, during a Shi’a religious celebration in the Eastern Province, an attack by Sunni militants killed five people. This was followed by two suicide attacks on Shi’a mosques, a week apart, in May 2015. Although the government and its religious establishment pledged solidarity with the Kingdom’s Shi’a in the wake of these attacks—and there is little doubt that the Saudi government is genuinely concerned by Sunni militancy—some Shi’a questioned the government’s sincerity.
Others, including the Shi’a activist and historian Hamzah al-Hassan, blamed the attacks on anti-Shi’a rhetoric propagated by Sunni polemicists, which was on the increase at the time to galvanize support for Saudi Arabia’s decision to intervene in Yemen to fight the Shi’a Houthis there. It cannot be denied that anti-Shi’a sentiment remains prevalent in the rhetoric of the kingdom’s clerical establishment. That rhetoric has increased in order to support Saudi Arabia’s sectarian-flavoured and anti-Iranian approaches to the conflicts in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq. This rhetoric sees Saudi Shi’a tainted by their religious association with other Shi’a in the region, especially Iran. Ultimately, it is likely that all al‑Nimr’s execution will do is make it difficult for Shi’a leaders such as al-Saffar to convince sections of the Saudi Shi’a population that peaceful change emanating from the Saudi royal family is a viable option.
Featured image: Photo by GLady. Public domain via Pixabay.