While sleek, ultra-modern skyscrapers reach towards the heavens from Saudi Arabia’s largest cities, al-Awamiya is a remote and impoverished town. It is home to many Saudi Shias, and was the birthplace of Nimr al-Nimr, whose execution by Saudi officials this weekend has deepened a rift between the Sunni-ruled Kingdom and Shia-dominated Iran.
“Ringed by date groves, it is a tableau of drab buildings, [and] car-repair shops,” Frederic Wehry of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace wrote of the Eastern Saudi town after a visit there last year.
In addition to its stark poverty, Wehrey noticed a more intense security presence than in other parts of the country. “I was met with…turreted ramparts, armored vehicles, and fatigue-clad soldiers,” the Middle East expert noted.
That’s because the remote town has been the “ground zero” of the country’s mostly quashed Arab Spring protests. The movement against Saudi Arabia’s fervently Sunni rulers has been led by the country’s Shia Muslim minority, which makes up about 15 percent of its population.
That population has often been on the receiving end of Saudi Arabian posturing on geopolitical issues, especially as they relate to Iran. While the Kingdom might oppose extremist Sunni militant groups like ISIS, it continues to promote extremist views in favor of Sunni predominance in the Muslim world.
“[T]he Saudi government has institutionalized sectarianism in virtually every aspect of political, social, and economic life,” Wehrey wrote. “It is a witches’ brew that has largely escaped U.S. attention, but one that has long provided the ideological grist for the Islamic State and other Sunni jihadi groups.”
The execution of the populist Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr has upended the precarious divide by stoking uprisings not only within the country’s Shia-dominated regions but in Iran and cities across the Middle East and South Asia with large Shia populations.
Saudi Arabian Shias have long faced discrimination at the hands of rulers eager to appease the country’s ultra strict Sunni clerics, according to Reuters:
Shias have long complained they face entrenched discrimination in a country where the semi-official Wahhabi Sunni school regards their sect’s beliefs as heretical. They say they face abuse from Wahhabi clerics, rarely get permits for places of worship and seldom get senior public sector jobs.
Those basic complaints have over the years been aggravated by what Qatif residents call a heavy security hand against their community, accusing the authorities of unfair detentions and punishments, shooting unarmed protesters and torturing suspects.
Reuters has met several Saudi Shias detained after the 2011 protests who said they were repeatedly beaten and deprived of sleep to extract confessions of rioting.
The execution of al-Nimr and three other Shia Muslims has caused hundreds to take to the streets in protest in the district of Qatif, where the town of al-Awamiya is located.
“People are angry,” one Qatif-based community leader said. “And they are surprised, because there were positive signals in the past months that the executions would not take place. People listen to his speeches and there’s no direct proof he was being violent.”
So why did Saudi officials execute him? According to Wehrey, the answer has less to do with the international balance of power between Sunni-led countries and Shia-led ones, and more to do with a Saudi royals’ efforts to appease the clerics who have helped consolidate their power and offer them legitimacy.
Al-Nimr was an “easy target” for Saudi royals, Wehrey told The Atlantic, because “they could say to their Sunni constituents, ‘Look, we’re not being soft on Iran, we’re not abandoning the Sunnis even though we’re fighting ISIS.’”
The execution spilled out into a geopolitical debate because Saudi and Iranian leaders have for so long used their rivalry as a way to gain legitimacy for their harsh domestic tactics and quest for international support.
It’s been tremendously useful to the Saudis to inflate the Iranian threat as a way to ingratiate themselves with the U.S.
“[I]t’s been tremendously useful to the Saudis to inflate the Iranian threat as a way to ingratiate themselves with the U.S., as a way to distract from their own failings at domestic governance, to rally the rest of the Gulf into a state of emergency,” Wehrey explained. “The sense that there’s this external threat — the Gulf states need to form this union and the Saudis are best-equipped to lead it — it’s a classic nationalist strategy: Create this external enemy to deflect attention from domestic pressures and challenges.”
By executing the cleric, however, Saudi Arabia has only further entrenched the us vs. them dynamic between Sunni and Shia Muslims — and made the fight against extremists who threaten both their interests even harder. The impact of the widened rift could be detrimental for a region already mired in conflict. With diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran strained, the battle against ISIS will be an even tougher fight.
The situation is volatile within Saudi Arabia as well. While protests have broken out in the Shia-dominated Qatif region before, never before have they threatened the country’s state-run oil company — not even during its Arab Spring protests in 2012. That changed on Tuesday when a Saudi Aramco bus was torched by protestors. If officials can’t offer up solutions to the sectarian discord they’ve sowed within the country, a nonviolent dissident cleric will have been the least of their worries.