For all the focus on the impact of the execution of Nimr on relations with Iran, this was largely a domestic Saudi political issue. The burning of the Saudi embassy in Tehran and the subsequent diplomatic fallout has dominated the headlines, but the message of the executions was directed primarily at a Saudi, rather than international, audience.
Nimr was not a senior cleric within the hierarchical structure of Shia Islam. He was not a marja (source of emulation) although he did act as a wakil (representative) of Ayatollah Taqi al-Modarresi in Karbala. Rather than scholastic status, Nimr’s relevance lay more in the fact he was an unreconstructed and vocal critic of the Saudi ruling family for decades.
Alone among the post-Iranian revolution activist Saudi Shia clerics, he refused to accept a 1993 agreement with King Fahd that promised improved rights for Saudi Shi’ites in exchange for the cessation of (largely overseas-based) opposition to the ruling family.
Despite his limited clerical credentials, however, Nimr was popular among the Shia youth of the Eastern Province largely because he was a vocal critic who, they believed, personified the Shia duty to actively oppose injustice no matter the personal cost. In the present political environment in Saudi Arabia that alone was sufficient to ensure his death sentence was carried out, despite the private entreaties of much of the international community.
To understand part of the motivation for the mass execution it is necessary to go back more than 30 years. In January 1980, 63 surviving Islamic militants from the siege of the Grand Mosque in Mecca were publicly beheaded in eight Saudi cities.
In the immediate aftermath of the Islamic revolution the previous year and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s stated desire to inspire other Muslims to overthrow what he termed “illegitimate” rulers, Saudi Arabia’s King Khalid needed to publicly assert the power of the ruling family. Hence the conduct of the executions in multiple locations throughout the kingdom.
Thirty-six years later, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman faces pressures on several fronts and the simultaneous execution of 47 people across 12 cities was likely planned to send the same type of message King Khalid’s did in 1980. This says much about the way the opaque ruling family sees the future. Although they haven’t faced a revolt in Mecca, they face multiple challenges domestically and regionally.
Domestically, the slump in oil prices and the likelihood that they won’t recover any time soon has placed significant and sustained pressure on the Saudi budget, and the government has slashed spending and cut subsidies on the basic services Saudi citizens have long enjoyed. Fuel prices rose by 50 per cent overnight.
The embers of the long-simmering tensions with the minority Saudi Shia population in the kingdom’s oil-rich Eastern Province have flared sporadically since the beginning of the Arab Spring. Saudi citizens represent the largest number of foreign fighters in Syria, just as they did in Iraq after the US-led invasion, and al-Qa’ida and Islamic State continue to attract adherents inside the kingdom. In July last year Riyadh announced the arrest of 431 active Islamic State terrorists.
Regionally, the US-Iranian detente was opposed from the beginning and is keenly felt by Riyadh as an indication that Washington seeks to distance itself from Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia’s desire to wrest Syria from the orbit of Iran remains unfulfilled and Saudi-supported rebel groups in Syria have been losing ground to Russian and Iranian-supported Syrian government forces.
Turkey and Qatar have been supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Saudis have proscribed as a terrorist group. And in Yemen the Saudi king has initiated a war of choice in one of the world’s most complex operating environments that is costing blood and treasure and giving all the signs of settling into a bloody stalemate.
These dual domestic and regional policy challenges have posed problems for the royal family, with the former challenging their ability to satisfy the Saudi social contract. The contract operates on two levels: the ruling family enjoys near absolute power through the support of the conservative religious establishment and tribal leadership by perpetuating an extremely conservative, Islamic society. It enjoys the support of the people through the distribution of financial largesse.
Riyadh’s response to the shock of the Arab Spring in February and March 2011 didn’t involve political reforms but, rather, the infusion of $US130 billion to pay a bonus of two months’ salary to public sector workers and to increase their wages by 15 per cent, along with increases to unemployment and student benefits and the construction of 500,000 low-cost housing units.
Given the multiple challenges he faces, the king wants to dispel any notion he is vulnerable. There are reports of palace intrigue regarding possible succession plans, competition between princes Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Nayef, along with claims King Salman is in poor health.
The public executions would have sent a strong message about the royal court’s resolve. The inclusion of Nimr and three other Shi’ites, along with more than 40 Sunni al-Qa’ida members, was designed to conflate anti-ruling family Shia activists with al-Qa’ida terrorists and to placate the family’s conservative clerical and tribal support base.
Arresting and executing Sunni “deviants” while Shia activists remained in prison did not play well with the king’s core support base. Nimr had no support from within mainstream Saudi society, so his execution imposed no cost on the Saudis on whom King Salman relied for support.
The fact the execution went ahead in the face of widespread international opposition also demonstrates Riyadh’s more confrontational stance since the death of King Abdullah. In the past few years Saudi Arabia has gained the leadership of the Sunni Arab world largely by default when wise and dexterous leadership is needed. There are questions as to whether it is suited to the role; its enormous economic clout has always allowed it to influence events through funding groups or initiatives. But financial largesse has never been a substitute for strategic vision.
This mattered less when the region was more ordered. Egypt for so long had been an influential and powerful regional state, but it is now consumed with domestic economic and security issues. Despite all its faults, Iraq under Saddam Hussein had provided a buffer to prevent Iran from achieving strategic depth in the Arab world until the 2003 invasion. Syria under Hafez al-Assad had also been able to play a role — the sole claimant to embody the spirit of Arab nationalism and the last “frontline” state against Israel. But Syria under Assad also was able to bend with the prevailing wind and maintain good relations with Riyadh and Tehran. Those days have now long past.
The tide of historical events has thrust Riyadh into the limelight as Iran, its strategic rival for regional influence, is poised to emerge from an extended period of economic isolation and when the US is less willing to intervene militarily in the region. The threat from transnational Islamist terrorism has focused the attention of the West on the Arab states whose poor governance, education systems and multiple identities give rise to it. Saudi Arabia is finding these multiple challenges difficult to navigate and it is questionable whether it has the capability to fulfil the leadership role.
The sight of Iranians burning Saudi missions in response to the execution of Nimr reinforced the narrative constructed by Saudi authorities that agitation among the Shia community is instigated by Iranian sympathisers to advance Tehran’s interests. Despite this and the diplomatic spat that has followed, President Hasan Rowhani’s conciliatory tone and Riyadh’s announcement that it will still attend the Syrian peace talks at which Iran will be present indicate the diplomatic fallout over this incident is likely to be limited.
The protests and attacks on the Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran should not distract us from the main reason for the single-day mass executions across Saudi Arabia. Just as it did more than 30 years ago, the Saudi royal family sensed the need to send a message to its subjects about the true source of power in the kingdom and the limits to acceptable protest. It remains to be seen whether in the long term such a message is heeded.
Rodger Shanahan is an associate professor at the Australian National University’s National Security College and a research fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy.