Brian Whitaker writes: Saudi Arabia’s execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent Shia cleric, on Saturday was an act motivated more by politics than judicial considerations. Although in a BBC interview William Patey – a former British ambassador in Riyadh – charitably described Nimr’s killing as a Saudi “miscalculation”, the consequences so far have been totally predictable.
In Iran, the headquarters of Shia Islam, the authorities turned a blind eye while demonstrators set fire to the Saudi embassy, and the Saudis have now responded by severing diplomatic relations. Bahrain quickly followed suit and the UAE downgraded its relations too. The execution has also triggered demonstrations among Shia communities elsewhere – including Bahrain, where the Shia majority is ruled by a Sunni minority.
More seriously, but no less predictably, the inflaming of sectarianism will have knock-on effects in Syria and Iraq. In Syria, where Saudi Arabia backs Sunni Islamists and Iran is supporting the President Assad regime, we can expect a hardening of positions at a time when international peace efforts are aimed at softening them and starting a dialogue. [Continue reading…]