The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia sentenced its leading Shiite cleric to death last week, in a move that provoked riots. VOA reports:
Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was convicted of “disobeying the ruler” and “inciting sectarian strike.” Analysts fear the sentence could exacerbate the already high sectarian tensions in the country.Shi’ites living in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province have long complained that they are marginalized under the Sunni monarchy. The death sentence handed to Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr will ratchet up tensions further, according to Jane Kinninmont of the Middle East program at policy group Chatham House.
As NPR notes, Saudi Arabia has its own internal problems with its Shia minority. However, the regional backdrop is important here. The Kingdom, which sees itself as the leading Sunni state, is locked into a cold war with wanna-be Shia hegemon Iran. In that context, deciding to execute—in fact, according to The Washington Post, the prosecutors asked to behead and then crucify—an important Shiite leader within your borders is decidedly not a peace overture.Executions are significantly up in general in Saudi Arabia this year, and it seems like the Kingdom is very spooked at the moment over internal security. We’ll see if Saudi Arabia goes through with it, however—the case is under appeal, and Riyadh may just be thinking that a leading Shiite under threat of death makes a useful negotiating chip, either internally or externally. Potentially, however, this could be a very foolish move slowly in the making.