Toby Craig Jones writes: After the 2003 invasion of Iraq unleashed a new wave of Sunni-Shiite tension across the Middle East, Riyadh started to shift course. But in 2011, as the Arab world exploded in popular protests, the Saudi government cemented its commitment to sectarian confrontation. The Shiite majority population in neighboring Bahrain rose up against the Sunni-dominated monarchy. The Shiite minority in Saudi Arabia also took to the streets, protesting for political reform.
Invoking Iran and Shiites as a terrifying menace, Saudi rulers framed everything from domestic protests to intervention in Yemen in sectarian terms and in the process sought not only to demonize a minority group, but also to undermine the appeal of political reform and protest.
Sheikh Nimr had a long history of challenging the Saudi ruling family, but it was his post-2011 activism that led to his execution. After speaking defiantly about anti-Shiite discrimination, he was chased and arrested by Saudi police in July 2012. The police who apprehended him claimed that he had fired on them. Officially, Sheikh Nimr was executed for sedition and other charges. More likely, he was executed for being critical of power. He was not a liberal, but he gave voice to the kinds of criticisms the Saudi royals fear most and tolerate least.
Still, Sheikh Nimr’s execution was more important for what it communicated to the kingdom’s domestic allies and to potential future dissidents. The emergence of anti-Shiite sentiment over the past decade has not only been used to stamp out efforts by the Shiite minority to gain more political rights. In quashing calls for democracy originating from the Shiite community, Riyadh has also undermined broader demands for political reform by casting protesters as un-Islamic. Many Sunni reformers who cooperated with Shiites in the past have since stopped.
The Saudi authorities have good reason to be concerned about new calls for reform. About a week before Sheikh Nimr’s execution, the kingdom announced that it was facing an almost $100 billion deficit for its 2016 national budget. Declining oil revenues may soon force the kingdom to slash spending on social welfare programs, subsidized water, gasoline and jobs — the very social contract that informally binds ruler and ruled in Saudi Arabia. The killing of a prominent member of a loathed religious minority deflects attention from impending economic pressure.
The danger in Saudi Arabia’s ongoing sectarian and anti-Iranian incitement — of which Sheikh Nimr’s execution is just one part — is that it is uncontrollable. As is clear in Syria, Iraq and even further afield, sectarian hostility has taken on a life beyond what the kingdom’s architects are able to manage. [Continue reading…]