With execution, Saudis ignite regional tensions

By Jon Gambrell AP

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — By executing a senior Shiite cleric, Saudi Arabia effectively lit a match to set off regional sectarian tensions and its rivalry with Iran, threatening to derail already shaky peace efforts over the wars in Syria and Yemen.

It also is part of a more aggressive stance by the kingdom in the past year, which included launching an air campaign against Shiite rebels in Yemen and increased aid to rebels in Syria.

The policy in part reflects a greater willingness for risk-taking to counter Iranian influence in the Arab world, especially with Riyadh worried about a potential easing of relations between Tehran and Washington in the wake of last year’s nuclear deal.

But it also has a powerful domestic factor: a show of toughness by King Salman and his son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, aiming to bolster their rule at a time when Saudi Arabia is facing an economic crisis brought on by low oil prices.

To the greater world, however, the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr took on a different appearance.

“It looks like an extremely irrational and ill-considered decision to do this,” said Christopher Davidson, a professor of Middle East politics at Durham University in Britain. “In my view, it speaks more about the local dynamics in Saudi Arabia itself that are shifting steadily away from the ruling family’s control.”

The execution sparked outrage among Shiites around the world, with protests in Iraq, Bahrain and Pakistan, and even in Saudi Arabia’s tightly controlled Shiite heartland in the east. Iran’s government — which presents itself as a defender of Shiites in the region — loudly condemned the killing. Attackers stormed, ransacked and burned the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, prompting Riyadh to cut off ties in response. Al-Nimr’s death was a dramatic step because Saudi Arabia has rarely resorted to the death penalty in dealing with unrest among its Shiite minority, which has long complained of discrimination in the Sunni-led kingdom. A vocal opponent of the Saudi royal family, al-Nimr was seen by Shiites in the region as a political dissident, although he always contended he did not foment violence.

Shiites had warned against his execution ever since a Saudi court convicted him of sedition and other charges and sentenced him to death in 2014. He was executed among a group of 47 people convicted on terrorism charges — almost all connected to Sunni radicals and al-Qaida — painting him with the same brush as a threat to security. The Iranian Influence For the royal family, the execution signals a tough hand against any trouble from Saudi Arabia’s Shiites and bolsters the kingdom’s posturing as the champion for Sunni Muslims in the region against Iranian influence. Saudi Arabia’s allies rallied it to its side Monday, with a number of nations following its lead in either cutting or reducing diplomatic ties with Iran. The Arab League called an emergency meeting of foreign ministers for Jan. 10 to discuss the attack on the Saudi Embassy and other Iranian “interference in Arab affairs.”