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Why The Saudi Shiite Cleric Execution Is More Than Just ‘Sectarianism-As-Usual’

The portrait of Nimr Baqr al-Nimr, the recently deceased Shia cleric in al-Awamiyah, Eastern Province, Saudi Arabia.
Abbas Goudarzi
Wikimedia Commons
The portrait of Nimr Baqr al-Nimr, the recently deceased Shia cleric in al-Awamiyah, Eastern Province, Saudi Arabia.

Since the January 2 assassination of popular Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, Iranians have continued to rally against Saudi Arabia, leading to a severing of diplomatic ties between the kingdom and the Islamic Republic.

“[al-Nimr] had been an outspoken Shiite cleric,” said Joshua Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “At the beginning of the Arab Spring, 2010-11, he had rallied Shiite crowds that demonstrated in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia - that's the oil province - 15 percent of Saudis are Shiites. They have been discriminated against, and they're angry.”

Thousands of worshippers who took part in Friday prayers in Tehran joined the rally, carrying pictures of al-Nimr and chanting "Death to Al Saud," referencing the kingdom's royal family.

Al-Nimr had openly asked the eastern provinces to secede. Saudi Arabia also executed 43 Sunni jihadists who had been involved with al-Qaeda, and led terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia.

“So the Saudis say, 'Hey, we're just keeping the kingdom safe. This is all about national security. We're killing more Sunnis than we did Shiites.' But you cannot go around demanding secession’,” Landis said.

There’s also a domestic political element to this situation beyond the Sunni versus Shia sectarian conflict. Saudi Arabia has been very engaged with the United States in fighting ISIS, and may want to prove to the kingdom’s citizens that they’re still focused on Iran and Shiites.

“The war in Yemen is going badly. Prices of oil have collapsed,” Landis said. “And because oil is at $35 a barrel, there’s a lot of internal criticism. So, in a sense, by enflaming nationalism, religious nationalism, this is going to shore up domestic [support within Saudi Arabia].”

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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