by Matthew Murphy
In a Middle Eastern country, a man has just received his sentencing. He will be beheaded, followed by a crucifixion, a public display of his decapitated body in order to demonstrate the danger of opposing those who ordered the execution.
One might logically assume that this grisly scenario belongs in one of the many videos posted by the Islamic State’s growing cadre of social media netizens depicting some of the group’s many atrocities and heavy-handed methods of quelling dissent. However, this scene is not from the war zones of Iraq or Syria, but inside a courtroom in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, about 1,000 kilometers from the Iraqi border. Furthermore, this particular execution is not just another cruel characteristic of war in Syria and Iraq, but one that stands to further inflame sectarian division between Sunni and Shia Muslims throughout the greater Middle East.
In Riyadh’s Specialized Criminal Court, which BBC reports is the primary court for terrorism cases, popular Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was charged with “foreign meddling” and “disobeying” Saudi Arabia’s rulers. Al-Nimr, who commands far-reaching support amongst both Saudi Arabia’s sizable Shia minority (concentrated in the country’s Eastern Province) and with Bahrain’s Shia majority, has been associated with Shia dissent in Saudi Arabia by the largely Sunni government in Riyadh. In an overt measure to eradicate any effort to change the current social and political landscape of a country commonly seen at the helm of Sunni power in the Middle East, the government in Riyadh, through its beheading of the Shia leader, is crippling any effective Shia movement towards greater freedom and equality in Saudi Arabia. Said Boumedouha, deputy director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Program, argued that “The death sentence against Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr is part of a campaign by the authorities in Saudi Arabia to crush all dissent, including those defending the rights of the Kingdom’s Shi’a Muslim community.” Despite its best efforts, Riyadh, through its decision to execute al-Nimr, is not only failing to end any popular Shia uprising in the eastern part of the country, but also widening the greater region’s deepening sectarian rift between Sunni and Shia Muslims.
Amidst the continuation of two brutal conflicts in Syria and Iraq that have been increasingly defined by sectarian dimensions, Saudi Arabia’s most recent blow against the Shia in its Eastern Province is the newest of a long line of state-sponsored oppression against the large ethnic minority. Riyadh deems the Shia as too susceptible to foreign influence, mostly from its regional nemesis Iran. Despite the government’s clearly biased and intentionally one-sided sentencing of Sheikh al-Nimr, Riyadh’s paranoia is not entirely unfounded, as Iran has in the past exacerbated sectarian tensions in countries such as Yemen (by supporting the Houthis) in order to project their own influence and power in the region.
An uprising of Saudi Arabia’s Shia minority, comprising roughly 10-15 percent of the total population, would present a disastrous situation for the House of Saud and undermine its ability to maintain its position as the preeminent Sunni power in the Middle East—a reality that would be welcomed by Sunni rivals in the Gulf such as Qatar. If bogged down by complications at home caused by increased Shia anti-government activity, Riyadh has little choice but to reallocate important money and attention away from its interests in the region (Syria, Iraq, etc.) and focus on domestic issues, presenting obvious opportunities for rivals, including Iran, to better embed themselves throughout the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia’s domestic policy towards its Shia minority reflects a long-standing hypocritical stance found commonly throughout the Middle East. For example, in the advent of the conflict in Iraq, another crisis that has been seen largely through the lens of sectarianism between the country’s Shia-dominated government and its marginalized Sunni population, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister has been outspoken in his criticism and condemnation of the treatment of marginalized Sunnis under the regime of Iraqi former Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki. However, despite condemning Iraq’s discrimination, Riyadh’s treatment of its own Shia population is quite similar, if not worse in many respects. Despite its location in the oil-rich Eastern Province, the Saudi Shias suffer the highest poverty levels and are not permitted to openly practice many Shia traditions and rituals. Also, unlike Iraq, where Sunnis have occupied high offices of government, Saudi Arabia’s Shia rarely hold any key positions in government. Saudi Arabia’s unabashed discrimination against Shias is the result of its paranoia about bolstering a group that, from the perspective of the Saudi ruling elite, is more likely to pursue interests divergent from Riyadh’s, some of which are more closely aligned with the wishes of Shia power- broker Iran.
Saudi Arabia’s discriminatory policies against its Shia minority, in light of Riyadh’s ruling to execute popular Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, serves as a reminder of the short-sightedness of many regimes in the Middle East, when addressing domestic problems that fall along ethnic and religious lines. Riyadh, by incorporating Shia Eastern Province communities into the social, political and economic fabric of Saudi Arabia, will lessen the likelihood of further unrest and uprising by giving the Shia a stake (something to lose) in the stability of the country. However, Riyadh persists in its oppression and marginalization of the population that possesses the ability to potentially unhinge stability in Saudi Arabia and uproot the established order of things in the Middle East.