Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Shi’ite Muslim cleric and dozens of al Qaeda members on January 2, 2016, signaling it would not tolerate attacks, whether by Sunni jihadists or minority Shi’ites, and stirring sectarian anger across the region.
Hundreds of Shi’ite Muslims marched through Qatif district of Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province in protest at the execution of cleric Nimr al-Nimr, chanting “down with the Al Saud”, the name of the ruling Saudi royal family.
Nimr, the most vocal critic of the ruling Al Saud among the Shi’ite minority, had come to be seen as a leader of the sect’s younger activists, who rejected the quiet approach of older community leaders for failing to achieve equality with Sunnis.
Four, including Nimr, were Shi’ites accused of involvement in shooting policemen. But most of the 47 executed in the kingdom’s biggest mass execution for decades were Sunnis convicted of al Qaeda attacks in Saudi Arabia a decade ago.
The executions took place in 12 cities in Saudi Arabia, four prisons using firing squads and the others beheading. In December, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula threatened to retaliate against Saudi Arabia for any execution of its members.
However, the executions seemed mostly aimed at discouraging Saudis from jihadism after bombings and shootings by Sunni militants in Saudi Arabia over the past year killed dozens and Islamic State called on followers there to stage attacks.
Saudi Arabia’s ruling Al Saud family has grown increasingly nervous in recent years as Middle East turmoil, especially in Syria and Iraq, has empowered Sunni militants seeking to bring it down and given room to Shi’ite Iran to spread its influence.
Riyadh’s main regional rival Iran and its Shi’ite allies immediately reacted with vigorous condemnation of the execution of Nimr, threatening Saudi Arabia and the Al Saud with severe repercussions.
Iranian clerics, officials and students attacked Sunni Muslim-ruled Saudi Arabia for executing Shi’ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, a move that seemed to further doom any hope of rapprochement between two ideologically opposed powers vying for influence across the region.
Nimr was seen in Iran as the champion of a Shi’ite minority oppressed in Saudi Arabia and Tehran had made clear that it saw the terrorism charges against him as fabricated.
Iran summoned the Saudi charge d’affaires in Tehran, accusing the kingdom of using terrorism as a pretext to suppress peaceful dissent among Shi’ites, who complain of systemic discrimination.