By Toby Matthiesen for Foreign Policy, 8 January 2016
In the aftermath of the execution of Saudi Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, the entire Middle East seemed eager to portray his life and death in self-serving fashion. Iran and Shiite movements across the region took on his case as the ultimate proof of the sectarian and unjust nature of the Saudi political system. Pro-Saudi pundits, for their part, have tried to portray the cleric as a pro-Iranian “radical” and “terrorist.” Some went as far as to call him a leader of Hezbollah al-Hejaz, the Saudi Shiite militant group active in the 1980s and 1990s that targeted the Saudi state and ultimately aimed to overthrow the monarchy. This was supposed to legitimize Nimr’s killing, which occurred at the same time as the execution of actual militants from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
In fact, Nimr’s relationship with Iran was always more complicated than both Iranian and Saudi leaders have claimed, and he had far more in common with the revolutionaries of the Arab Spring than with the jihadis executed alongside him or the clerics who rule in Tehran. He was never part of Hezbollah al-Hejaz, but actually came of age in a rival organization that was expelled from Iran because of differing views over Iran’s official political system, velayat-e faqih (or “the guardianship of the jurisprudent”).
Born in 1959, Nimr hailed from Awamiya, a relatively poor Shiite village surrounded by date farms in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. Nimr’s grandfather led an armed revolt in 1929 against Saudi tax collectors and Wahhabi missionaries who were sent to the Eastern Province after the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, King Abdulaziz bin Saud, conquered it in 1913. The revolt was eventually crushed both by repression and by the mediation of pro-government notables from the main Saudi Shiite town of Qatif.
Nimr became politicized in the late 1970s, when the Shirazi movement spread to the Persian Gulf and recruited young Shiites. The movement was a transnational Shiite political organization led by Iraqi-Iranian cleric Muhammad Mahdi al-Shirazi, but many of its supporters were Shiite Muslims from Kuwait, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia. The Saudi branch of the Shirazi movement organized a short-lived uprising in 1979, of which Awamiya was one of its centers. After the uprising was crushed, scores of Saudi Shiites, including Nimr, went into exile to Iran, where they were trained in the movement’s hawza, or religious school.
The supervisor of the hawza — as well as of the Shirazi movement’s whole political dimension — was Muhammad Taqi al-Mudarrisi. Nimr apparently became quite close to him during his time in the hawza, and when the Shirazi movement fell out with the Iranian authorities in the mid-1980s, Nimr became a teacher in the movement’s hawza in the Damascus suburb of Sayyida Zeinab, which became the center of the Shirazi movement.
After the falling-out with Iran, the Shirazis had hardly any presence in the city of Qom, the center of religious learning in Iran. Iraq under Saddam Hussein was also a no-go area for them. So Sayyida Zeinab became the place of choice for this transnational network, as well as a place that people from the Gulf states could easily visit.
Nimr returns home
After more than a decade in exile, the Saudi Shiites of the Shirazi movement had not been able to achieve their aims — namely, to change the political system in Saudi Arabia and ameliorate the situation of Saudi Shiites. Hence, they started to think about reaching an agreement with the Saudi government. By the early 1990s, a political settlement was on the table that included a general amnesty offered by King Fahd in return for the halt of their oppositional activities.
However, a number of opposition activists — particularly a group of religious clerics led by Nimr — opposed the amnesty agreement. They argued that the Saudi state was not altering the subordinate status of the Shiites. And while Nimr returned to Saudi Arabia together with the other activists after 1993, when the agreement was reached, his rejection of the deal came to define his rivalry with the more accommodationist group in the Shirazi movement, represented by Hasan al-Saffar, the leader of the Saudi Shirazi branch.
Nimr could not, however, block the agreement. After the amnesty was announced, he went back to live in his hometown of Awamiya, where he became an imam in a small mosque. After the death of the spiritual father and founder of the Shirazi movement in 2001, the global movement split into two main camps: Sadiq al-Shirazi became the official heir, while Mudarrisi won the support of the movement’s more politically active adherents. Nimr, who had known Mudarrisi from his days in the hawza, became one of Mudarrisi’s key representatives in Saudi Arabia and authored a book on him. (Mudarrisi called Nimr’s execution a “declaration of war.”)
The old leadership of the Saudi Shirazis centered on Saffar but on the other hand continued to support Shirazi, while also becoming the local representative of a number of other Shiite ayatollahs, such as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in the Iraqi city of Najaf. The rift on the local political scene between those in favor of accommodation with the Saudi state and those trying to resist it was therefore also related to rivalries among Shiite ayatollahs in the centers of Shiite religious learning.
A new Shiite protest movement
Nimr nonetheless remained a rather marginal figure throughout the 2000s, as King Abdullah tried to reach out to the Shiites and included some in Saudi state institutions. But Nimr continued to voice demands that many Saudi Shiites supported, but no one else would dare say in public. In 2007, for example, he urged the Eastern Province’s governor in a meeting to give the Shiites a share of the oil income since they were living on top of the oil but not seeing very much of its benefits. In 2009, after clashes between Shiite pilgrims and Saudi security forces in Medina, Nimr’s fiery sermons denounced the state’s anti-democratic and anti-Shiite foundations and called for protests in the Eastern Province. In one of his most famous sermons, he seemed to argue that the Shiites might one day secede if they could not realize their political demands within the borders of the Saudi state.
Shortly afterward, Nimr went into hiding to avoid arrest. He only re-emerged in 2011, as the uprisings in the Eastern Province and neighboring Bahrain gained pace.
Nimr was the only major Saudi Shiite cleric to unanimously support both these protest movements. His former colleagues in the Shirazi movement, such as Saffar, were much more cautious and at times even urged youth to stay at home to not further inflame the situation (all forms of public protest are banned in Saudi Arabia).
Nimr thought that a successful revolution in Bahrain would change the situation in the Eastern Province — a line of thinking that prompted the Saudi authorities to send their armed forces to Bahrain in March 2011 to quell the protests there. Nimr regularly urged youth to protest in support of Bahrain and against the Saudi ruling family. He was finally arrested in 2012 in a raid on Awamiya and was shot in the leg. During his time in prison he apparently refused to reconsider his political views and apologize for his statements.
His execution came as a surprise to many, as a number of local and international diplomatic efforts were underway to prevent his death sentence from being carried out. His body was buried in an unnamed grave alongside others killed, probably because he was killed in a particularly nasty manner, which some have linked to crucifixion. His family, which has urged Saudi Shiites to stay calm and not respond with violence, has asked the authorities to at least hand over his body, but to no avail.
More executions on the way
While Nimr’s execution has already roiled politics in the Gulf, he was not the only one to be killed — and it seems like he will not be the last. Three other Saudi Shiites (Muhammad al-Shuyokh, Muhammad al-Suwaimil, and Ali al-Ribh) — one of whom was accused of writing graffiti, spreading rumors online, and attending protests — were also executed. And more Shiite dissidents, including a number who were minors at the time of their arrests, are on death row. The death sentences of three youth — Abdullah al-Zaher, Dawoud al-Marhoon, and Nimr’s nephew Ali Mohammed Baqir al-Nimr — have been upheld in all instances and are now waiting for approval by the royal court. Four other Shiites have also been sentenced to death and are awaiting the result of their final appeal (Amjad al-Muaybad, Yusuf al-Mushaikhas, Ahmad al-Kamal, and Samir al-Basri). In addition, more than a dozen prisoners are accused of having committed crimes that are punishable with a death sentence, such as attacking the police. The fate of these mainly young men thus lies in the hands of King Salman.
Nimr’s execution and the reactions by Iran and Saudi Arabia have led to a severe worsening of the relationship between the two countries, which threatens to reverberate across the Middle East. From the Saudi point of view, the Iranian protest of Saudi Arabia’s execution of a Saudi citizen is interference in the affairs of a sovereign state. Riyadh also sees the fact that Iranians set fire to and ransacked the grounds of the Saudi Embassy and the Saudi Consulate in Mashhad — which, ironically, was probably almost exclusively used by Saudi Shiites on pilgrimage for consular services — as an attack on the institutions of the state itself.
But Saudi attempts to lump together people convicted for their opinions, such as Nimr, with al Qaeda militants and label them all as “terrorists” is particularly sinister. Nimr’s personal history shows that he was an outspoken revolutionary who thought the Arab uprisings were a historic opportunity to overthrow the old dictators, whether in the Gulf or in Syria, where he called for the downfall of President Bashar al-Assad. According to all accounts, he did not incite violence, but rather called for peaceful protests, and certainly did not shoot at police himself.
Nimr must therefore be seen as a political prisoner, and his execution as a calculated attempt by Saudi Arabia to heighten sectarian tensions both at home and abroad. It seems that Iran walked right into the trap by threatening Saudi Arabia over Nimr’s execution, which gave Saudi Arabia a pretext to cut diplomatic relations and force its allies to take sides. Riyadh feels deeply uneasy about American and European attempts at rapprochement with Iran, something it wants to prevent at any cost — and the growing polarization between the Sunni states and Tehran serves its purposes on this front.
As a result of this, both sides will likely extend their involvement in the proxy wars in Yemen and Syria. After the breakdown of diplomatic relations, even a direct military confrontation does not seem totally out of the question. In such a scenario, the United States and NATO will likely side with Saudi Arabia, a fact that Riyadh includes in its calculations. Western powers should do everything they can to prevent the ultimate catastrophe in the Middle East from happening and rein in the hawks in Riyadh who see a further polarization of the Middle East as being in their personal and national interest.