Saudi execution of Shia cleric poses a direct challenge to Iran

Simon Tisdall writes: The consequences of Saudi Arabia’s mass execution of 47 people will be felt far beyond its Eastern Province, which was home to Nimr al-Nimr, the leading Shia Muslim cleric who was the most prominent figure among those to die.

Unlike many of the Sunni Muslims executed for alleged complicity in al-Qaida terrorism, Nimr was an advocate of non-violent resistance to the unelected Saudi regime. He was arrested in 2012 for criticising the royal family.

His plight reflected the trials and tribulations of Saudi Arabia’s Shia minority, which accounts for 15% of the country’s 29 million people and has suffered, historically, from institutionalised discrimination and periodic security crackdowns.

The al-Qatif governorate of Eastern Province, bordering the Gulf, has been the setting for anti-regime agitation since at least 1979, when Saudi Shias demonstrated in support of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, whose Islamic revolution in Iran that year toppled the shah. Trouble erupted again in 2011-13, triggered by the Arab Spring uprising of the Shia majority in nearby Bahrain and its subsequent brutal, Saudi-assisted suppression. [Continue reading…]

Mark Townsend adds: In October 2014, Saudi Arabia’s specialised criminal court sentenced Nimr to death for seeking ‘foreign meddling’ in the kingdom along with ‘disobeying’ its rulers and taking up arms against the security forces”. His brother, Mohammad al-Nimr, tweeted information about the death sentence and was promptly arrested on the same day.

As news of the sentence travelled, the head of Iran’s armed forces warned Saudi Arabia that it would “pay dearly” if it dared execute the cleric. Powerful and prominent in life, it is the nature of Nimr’s death that could shape his legacy. [Continue reading…]

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2 thoughts on “Saudi execution of Shia cleric poses a direct challenge to Iran

  1. Restol

    At Middle East Eye, one article of analysis said Shiekh Nimr Al-Nimr called for the overthrow of the government and pledged allegiance to some foreign leader. I don’t know if that is so, the article indicated this was an execution to send a message to protesters in that Eastern area of the country.

  2. Paul Woodward

    Middle East Eye:

    “It is a clear message to anybody who wants to overthrow the government,” said Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi columnist and General Manager of Alarab satellite TV, told MEE on Saturday. “Nimr openly called for overthrow of the system and allegiance to Wilayit al-Faqih [and to] Iran’s supreme leader.”

    “That amounts as treason by any democratic country,” Khashoggi said. “[His execution] is not about his view as a Shia; it’s about his call to overthrow the government and swear allegiance to a foreign leader.”

    The Independent:

    Al-Nimr had long been a critic of the Saudi government, jailed on a number of occasions previously for his involvement in protests, and was found guilty by the country’s Specialised Criminal Court in 2014 of crimes including calling for the collapse of the state and failing to pledge allegiance to the government.


    Mr Nimr, who was a driving force behind the anti-government protests, was found guilty of a number of terrorism-related charges in 2014, including incitement of vandalism and sectarian strife, failing to obey or pledge allegiance to King Abdullah (then monarch of Saudi Arabia), calling for the collapse of the state, and insulting relatives and companions of the Prophet Muhammad.

    A 2008 assessment by the U.S. embassy in Riyadh (leaked by Wikileaks) said:

    Much of the attention recently received by al-Nimr is due to his comments in sermons and an interview with IslamOnline website perceived as supporting Iran, including defending Iran’s nuclear aspirations and complimenting the people and government of Iran on their piety. In a July 26 follow-up letter to IslamOnline, Al-Nimr attempted to distance himself from Iran, saying that piety is only God alone, and that all nations act in their own interests. It was this sentiment that continued in the meeting with PolOff, as al-Nimr stated that his fundamental view of foreign powers – including Iran – is that they act out of self-interest, not out of piety or religious commonality. Al-Nimr said he was against the idea that Saudi Shi’a should expect Iranian support based on some idea of sectarian unity that supersedes national politics.

    If, as Khashoggi claims, Nimr had pledged allegiance to Iran, it seems inconceivable that this would not have been referred to by the court that convicted him. It sounds instead that Khashoggi is simply repeating earlier allegations that were never substantiated.

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