January 4, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: Saudi Arabia and the Death of Sheikh Nimr

• On January 2, Saudi Arabia executed Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, the most senior Shi’a cleric in the Kingdom

• Protests in reaction to the execution were widespread and have now led to the severing of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran

• Although Saudi Arabia’s endgame is not immediately clear, the reaction to al-Nimr’s death was predictable

• Hopes that recent political progress on Syria and Yemen might lead to peace talks have been set back; instead escalation may now be more likely.


The execution on January 2 of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a firebrand Shi’a cleric from Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, who had been in prison since 2012, has led to widespread protests and demonstrations. As a result, Saudi Arabia’s relations with Iran have hit a new low and sectarian tensions have risen across the region, including in Bahrain and in the Eastern Province itself. Both areas host majority Shi’a populations, and had been relatively quiet since protests in 2011, in which Sheikh Nimr played a prominent role. Much of the fallout from Sheikh Nimr’s execution was predictable, raising questions about the strategy Saudi Arabia intends to pursue through the first few months of 2016.

Sheikh Nimr’s execution was just one of 47 performed on January 2—the highest daily toll since the 1980 executions that followed the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca the previous year. As in 1980, those executed on Saturday had been convicted of terrorism, with all but four being supporters of al-Qaeda. Despite the symbolism of lumping Sheikh Nimr in with terrorists—and despite the charges against him being terror-related—he had never advocated violence. He was best known for calling for greater recognition of the rights of Saudi’s Shi’a population, and for his criticism of the Saudi royal family—in particular the previous Crown Prince and Interior Minister, Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz, whose death immediately preceded Sheikh Nimr’s arrest. Sheikh Nimr had also spoken out against the ruling family in Bahrain, but had been equally critical of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

Sheikh Nimr’s death sentence was handed down in October 2014 by Saudi Arabia’s Specialized Criminal Court, but the decision to carry it out—previewed by hints in the Saudi press—was taken by King Salman, or by those closest to him, as only the King has the authority to commute or confirm such punishment. Sheikh Nimr had the rank of Ayatollah, and was therefore considered by many Shi’a to be above the law; his execution was therefore seen by many Shi'a as a direct assault on their religion. As a result, Sheikh Nimr’s death has sparked protests in many parts of the world—in particular in Shi’a communities in Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia itself. Unsurprisingly, the largest reaction has occurred in Iran, where both the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Tehran and its Consulate in Mashhad City were attacked by mobs and set ablaze.

The execution of Sheikh Nimr was another shot in the escalating war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Unlike Iran, which does not see all Sunnis as pro-Saudi, Saudi Arabia appears to suspect that all Shi’a—including the Houthis in Yemen and the Alawites in Syria—are fifth columns in support of Iran. This makes a Saudi ‘victory’ hard to visualize—and quite probably impossible to achieve—and weakens the internal stability of the Kingdom by forcing its Shi’a population to renounce either its government or its creed. No doubt Saudi Arabia has objectives and a plan, but in the short term they appear to create more problems for the Kingdom than for its archrival.

Iran’s response to the death of Sheikh Nimr was both diplomatic—the Saudi Ambassador to Tehran was called in and handed a strong letter of protest—and undiplomatic—Ayatollah Khamenei’s website published a cartoon of the so-called Islamic State in execution mode split in two, with half labeled the ‘White ISIS’ (Saudi Arabia) and the other the ‘Black ISIS.’ The website later replaced this cartoon with a slightly milder one asking the difference between Saudi Arabia and the Islamic State. Following the assaults on the two main Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran, which President Rouhani condemned, Saudi Arabia decided to sever diplomatic relations—a logical escalation that may have been planned from the outset.

This leaves the wars in SyriaIraq, and Yemen still harder to resolve, and undoes some of the progress made over recent weeks to bring Saudi Arabia, Iran, and their proxies into direct discussions. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia’s action has tended to confirm a general shift in the Kingdom towards conservatism and confrontation that has been evident since the accession of King Salman. Many in the Muslim world worry that Saudi Arabia’s exportation of a radical version of Wahhabism over the last 50 years has prepared fertile ground for violent extremists to exploit—both in challenging government authority and in exciting sectarianism—and that Saudi Arabia itself may face these challenges in due course.

For the Gulf states, Iran is a trading partner rather than an enemy, and tensions between Shi’a and Sunni are more dangerous and harder to resolve than the traditional rivalries between Persians and Arabs. Iraq and Syria may be riven by sectarianism and ethnic divides, but it is still conceivable that they could settle down into uneasy conglomerates of semi-independent regions based on ethnic and/or sectarian lines. The breakup of Saudi Arabia would be more consequential to Gulf state security, and unlikely to end well for anyone.

That day is still a long way off, if it comes at all. However, if the execution of Sheikh Nimr is intended to take the minds of Saudi’s Sunni population off the recent 40% price hike in gasoline and point the finger at an external enemy as the cause of current economic woes, it may not be enough. To pursue that line of exculpation, the Saudi royal family will have to continue to escalate its rhetoric and action against Iran; any progression from a proxy war on several fronts towards an actual war would scare the entire world, not just the Gulf states that sit between the Kingdom and Iran.


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