Saudi Arabia’s execution of the firebrand Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr Bakr al-Nimr on January 2 does not augur well for hope that the kingdom’s relations with its neighbour across the Persian Gulf, Iran, will improve in the new year. Nimr, from al-Awamiyah in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich and largest province, ash-Sharqiyah, was among 46 others executed by the kingdom but the one who has caught the most attention due to his perceived links with Shia Iran. The execution has met with muted response from the Western powers, all involved to varying degrees in the several conflicts presently plaguing the Middle East and North Africa. However, news of the sheikh’s death resulted in an assault on the Saudi embassy in Tehran and a diplomatic severing of ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran, sparking possibly the worst crisis between the two regional rivals since the Iran-Iraq War.
Despite apprehension that this spat between neighbours will escalate into something far uglier, there is little cause for concern. If anything, the execution may at most be used by either Riyadh or Tehran as a cover for actions against each other that would otherwise have seemed provocative in the unstable region. Although Nimr’s ties to Tehran are questionable, the sheikh clearly enjoyed sectarian sympathies among the Iranian people; this, in addition to his call to overthrow the Saudi state, support of Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq, sharp criticism of the repressive minority Sunni monarchy in Bahrain, and belief that Saudi Shia had a right to secede condemned him in Riyadh’s eyes. Interestingly, Nimr had cautioned his followers in Saudi Arabia in 2008 that they should not expect any sectarian sympathy from Iran for Tehran will act only in its own selfish national interests. More recently, he differed with the ayatollahs on the repressive regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
Despite the immediate sharp tit-for-tat, there is little more that can go wrong between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The two countries are already engaged in a proxy war in Syria and possibly Yemen and Bahrain as well. Historically, one would be hard-pressed to remember a time when relations between the two countries was normal, let alone friendly. Saudi Arabia is a new country but sectarian and racial perceptions between Arabs and Persians go back centuries. Yet pace this historical baggage, it is naive to think that either Riyadh or Tehran are motivated by these motives; a cursory look at the lifestyle of the clerics in Tehran or the royal family in Riyadh betray very un-Islamic personal proclivities. Both countries are ruled by shrewd nationalists who are not above manipulating public emotion via the opiate of the masses.
The question, of course, is what might have caused the House of Saud to firmly cross the line by executing Nimr? It is true that the sheikh had been sentenced to death in 2014 but usually these things resulted in exchanges, concessions, and pardons. Although Riyadh had this time insisted that it would indeed carry out the sentence, King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud’s predecessor had punted on the actual date. By carrying out the execution, the Saudis were certain to anger Iran and for rewards yet unclear.
The most plausible explanation for Riyadh’s actions is how the geopolitical winds have blown against it in the past year. In 2015, the West concluded a nuclear deal with Iran that did not eradicate its programme; the civil war in Syria seems to be closer to slipping out of Riyadh’s influence; the invasion of Yemen has not gone as smoothly as planned; the threat of Islamism endangers the House of Saud; and internal stability is fraying faster than Riyadh can throw riyals at public works projects. These setbacks have shaken the kingdom’s role at the helm of affairs in the region – despite a cooperative United Arab Emirates and a docile Qatar at the moment, Saudi Arabia’s leadership of the Sunni Arab community appears bleaker than ever before. The first event threatens an ascendant Shia power and a struggle for regional dominance; the second showcases the increasing reach of a regional rival; the third highlights Riyadh’s military weakness against a far less capable foe; and the fourth and fifth may undermine the ruling dynasty itself.
The execution of Nimr works at many different levels to address these threats: first, it is a symbolic snub to Iran. If it upsets Tehran enough to precipitate a rash action, Riyadh will gladly milk it as another reason the international community cannot trust Iran with a nuclear programme. Second, the execution of Nimr along with mostly convicted al-Qa’ida terrorists portrays the Shia unrest within the kingdom as equivalent to international terror. Third, the execution of a Shia cleric gives some pause to the regime’s Sunni and Islamist critics that the House of Saud is not working in sufficient earnest towards bolstering a (radical) Sunni interpretation of Islam.
What can Iran do in retaliation? Little that it is not doing already. By supporting Assad in Syria and perhaps the Houthis in Yemen – though there have been doubts – Iran is already doing far more to weaken its regional rival than any direct action ever could. Tehran could increase its assistance to its proxies in these two conflicts or perhaps encourage a third front in Bahrain where Shias already have a demographic advantage. Whatever the clerics decide, there is little that can pin any change to the execution of Nimr. The chances of a spillover into the neighbourhood are also minuscule because Saudi Arabia does not have the support it would require from its fellow Gulf Cooperation Council states; Pakistan would avoid getting involved because any deterioration of its relations with Tehran will only be to India’s benefit.
If, for some unforeseeable reason, Riyadh and Tehran decide to talk peace, Nimr’s death will hardly hold them back. Nonetheless, the execution serves as a reminder to all those who thought the nuclear deal with Tehran would transform the Middle East that a lot more work is yet to be done. Perhaps, it even suggests that the problem lay not with Tehran but elsewhere all these years anyway.