SINCE RETURNING TO HIS VILLAGE in eastern Saudi Arabia in 1999, after having spent over a decade studying, teaching and preaching abroad (namely in Iran and Syria) Sheikh Nimr Baqir Al Nimr’s fiery speeches were causing considerable frustration to the Saudi government.
Saudi Arabia hoped that with his execution in the first week of January this year would close the chapter on its tense relationship with the cleric but it only added strain to diplomatic tensions with Iran, seen as a strong supporter of Nimr, even though the cleric had denied holding ties to the Iranian regime.
Following Nimr’s execution, the Arab Gulf region witnessed an instant division of political and diplomatic views.
Much as he did in life, his death too saw a polarity in views. News of his death led to demonstrations and clashes across the region and world—namely by supporters in Iran in Bahrain, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon. But who was Sheikh Nimr Al Nimr whose death added fire to the already heated dispute between Tehran and Riyadh and was he really a serious threat to the monarchy?
Born in 1959 in the village of Awamiyah, a small town close to the city of Al Qatif in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, Nimr came from a family with a long history of political activism. His grandfather, Sheikh Mohammed Al Nimr, led a revolt against the House of Saud in 1929-30. Opting for religious studies over higher formal education, Nimr went to Iran in 1980 to enrol in a Shiite seminary or hawza.
In Tehran he attended Hawza Al Imam Al Qaem, which had just been established that year by Ayatollah Muhammad Taqi Mudarrasi, a man who would prove to be one of Nimr’s most influential teachers. After 10 years, the hawza opened an office in Syria, and Nimr relocated there, teaching and managing the institute for a few years.
In 1999 Nimr returned to Saudi Arabia and became vocal against the regime.
Over the years, his open opposition to the royal family and attempts at civil disobedience would land him in jail multiple times—he was arrested on numerous occasions and detained for short periods of time on charges of inciting people and alleged links to “armed groups.”
In 2003 he was detained for leading public prayers in his home village where he was an imam. According to his official website, he was summoned in 2005 to cancel a festival planned called “Al Baqi, the First Step to Reconstruction.”
Al Baqi Cemetery holds particular significance as it once contained the graves of many of Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) family and companions. Located in Medina, the cemetery was demolished by King Saud in 1926. The demolition was widely protested by Muslim nations. It is believed the ruling monarchy made the decision in accordance to the strictest form of Islam, which sees the reverence of Baqi Cemetery as idolatry.
Nimr’s decision to discuss its reconstruction was thus a sore point.
He was arrested again in 2006, allegedly after submitting a petition demanding the government rebuild the Baqi’ Cemetery in Medina.
Nimr also called on the Saudi government to replace the current school curriculum with one that doesn’t condemn Shiite beliefs.
In 2008 he was detained for a day and released on the condition that he would not lead Friday prayers in his home town. At this point, Nimr was still building his constituency and galvanizing support among young people.
A U.S. diplomatic cable dated August 23, 2008, disclosed by Wikileaks said that Nimr was “typically regarded as a second-tier political player” who nevertheless, was gaining more popularity, especially within the poor who saw little sign of reform in the government’s relations with the Shiites.
With the advent of the Arab Spring, Nimr continued his activism against the state and his impact was clear on the streets in the form of demonstrations.
In July 2012 Nimr was arrested following an armed clash with security forces according to Brigadier General Mansour bin Sultan Al Turki who said the cleric was shot in the thigh during the shootout. Media reports, including the BBC, suggested he was injured in a car crash as “security forces chased him.” He was arrested for being an “instigator of sedition”—and more protests erupted.
According to Frederic Wehrey, Senior Associate of the Middle East Program at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, when other Shiite clerics held talks with Riyadh and pledged their loyalty to the state in the early 1990s, Nimr invoked Ayatollah Khomeini’s concept of resisting tyrannical rule (taghut) to provide religious legitimacy for Shiites to reject the rule of Al Saud.
In his own words, Nimr entertained the idea of secession from the Kingdom.
“If we’re forced to choose between our dignity and ourselves, we will demand separation from this county,” he said in a public speech. “We will demand secession; it doesn’t matter what happens next. Our dignity is more important than the unity of this land. It is even more important than the unity of this Ummah, [Islamic Nation].”
According to Toby Matthiesen, author of The Other Saudis and a research fellow at Oxford, Nimr “disavowed any engagement with the state, had called for a boycott of the municipal elections and had at one point demanded a share of the oil income for the Shiite.”
Nimr referred to Saudi rule as “a reckless, tyrannical regime.” His provocative calls upon Allah to “take their lives, one after the other—the Saud [Saudi Arabia], Khalifa [of Bahrain], and Al Assad [of Syria] dynasties,” were part of several public calls and speeches he gave, which the Saudi authorities considered an instigation that led to demonstrations in the Eastern Province, specifically in Qatif, where such slogans were painted on walls.
During the Arab Spring, his disparagements were not limited to the Saudi regime, he spoke against governments of Bahrain and even Syria.
The fiery cleric’s confrontational approach with the Saudi authorities peaked when he launched a strong personal attack against the royal family, which some believe contributed to the decision to execute him.
In June 2012, Nimr publicly celebrated the death of Interior Minister Crown Prince Nayef bin Abd Al Aziz Al Saud.
“Why shouldn’t we be happy at the death of the man who imprisoned and killed our children? … He will be eaten by worms and suffer the torments of Hell in his grave,” Nimr said in his speech.
Today, Prince Nayef’s son, Muhammad bin Nayef, is the crown prince and interior minister.
The cleric’s brother, Muhammad Al Nimr, believes the execution was an act of revenge. “It is unfortunate that the verdicts are closer to personal revenge processes,” he said in a statement at the time, adding that there was no proof that Nimr was involved in any “violence or bloodshed.”
Saudi authorities deny any allegations of discrimination against Nimr or the Kingdom’s Shiite community.
In 2012, the Kingdom’s then Interior Minister, Prince Ahmed bin Abdelaziz revealed in a press conference that Nimr’s wife, Muna Jabir Al Sharbawi, who worked for the interior ministry’s passport and immigration department, was treated in the U.S. for a “malicious illness,” which was “paid [for] by the Saudi government.”
Sharbawi, died in a New York hospital in 2012, where she was being treated for a chronic disease, according to a family statement. Her husband was in jail at the time.
Prince Ahmed also added that three of Nimr’s children were educated in the U.S. at the expense of the Saudi government, as part of the Kingdom’s scholarship program where they pursued degrees in law, pharmacy, and electric engineering.
Ultimately then, it seems unlikely that Nimr was executed because of a personal vendetta. The real causes seem much deeper than Nimr’s demands for better treatment of Saudi’s Shiites.
Luay Al Khatteeb, a commentator on Middle East politics said: “Nimr refused to recognize the monarchy of the House of Saud as the legitimate rulers of Saudi Arabia. He and his [followers] did not give them any oath of allegiance (bay’a) to acknowledge them as rightful leaders.”
Nimr, in one of his speeches at the time when people were pledging allegiance to the late King Abdullah, said: “We will not pledge allegiance. Allegiance and congratulations are not permitted [In Islam] to tyrants and oppressors.”
Perhaps the Saudi regime understood Nimr’s refusal to pledge allegiance to the royal family as his loyalty—and that of his followers—lay beyond the Kingdom’s geographical borders, i.e. Iran.
Jamal Khashoggi, an influential Saudi commentator, argues that Nimr was not a freedom fighter calling for democracy or the realization of specific rights. Rather he “wanted to change the regime and apply the Shiite principle of wilayat al-faqih,” or the Guardianship of the Jurist, one of the guiding foundations of Iran’s Islamic government. This meant putting “Saudi Arabia under a custodianship,” Khashoggi added.
Besides punishing Nimr for his intransigence, Saudi Arabia’s execution on January 2 of 47 men, mostly on charges of terrorism, including Al Qaeda leader Fares Al Shuwail, was meant to send two key messages: one to Al Qaeda and the other to Iran.
Saudi Arabia feels a mounting threat from these two parties; Nimr’s execution overshadowed the fact that 44 of the others executed were Sunni militants affiliated with Al Qaeda, some of whom were from powerful Saudi tribes.
With the executions, Saudi Arabia showed its commitment to fighting Sunni extremism, namely Al Qaeda. It also chose to respond to Iran by targeting someone whom Tehran had helped turn into a cause célèbre: Nimr Al Nimr.
Unfortunately, it seems that one way Saudi Arabia and Iran communicate is through the execution of its political dissidents. While Iran ranks second in the world in terms of executions, according to Amnesty International in a 2014 report, right after China, Saudi Arabia comes third.
This form of communication, however, serves neither Saudi Arabia nor Iran’s strategic goals. The execution of Nimr has only added further strain to sectarian tensions in Saudi Arabia and the rest of the region, as many Shiites view Nimr a martyr.
Meanwhile, Iran is unlikely to respond directly to Saudi Arabia, especially after failing to protect the Saudi embassy in Tehran from angry demonstrators protesting Nimr’s execution, a move that drew significant international condemnation.
Instead, Iran is likely to escalate tension using proxies in conflict zones like Syria and Yemen. The likelihood of a direct war between Tehran and Riyadh is not likely in the near future but if the escalation continues, it cannot be eliminated in the long run.
If the crisis reaches that level, then the scenario will be even more horrific than what we see today in Syria. At that point the entire region would be engulfed and the U.S. would undoubtedly be dragged into the war, leaving no one safe.
It is unlikely that Saudi Arabia is going to de-escalate on its own. The Saudis feel betrayed and abandoned by Washington’s decision to sign the nuclear deal with Iran without including provisions such as the latter’s interventionist policies in Arab affairs.
Since the nuclear deal, Saudi Arabia has built three coalitions—the Arab coalition intervening in Yemen, a Muslim military coalition against terrorism, and a Saudi-Turkey Strategic Cooperation Council. All three have been created independently from the U.S., Saudi Arabia’s traditional security ally, and they all share the common goal of countering Iran.
Nonetheless, Riyadh and Tehran should keep in mind that escalation, violence, and war can be avoided. There are other options: If Saudi Arabia succeeds in restoring the regional balance that was disrupted by the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, without necessarily relying on the U.S., that should encourage Iran, for its part, to engage more seriously with the Kingdom. Hence, the Saudi strategy of coalition building has not yielded any decisive results.
Probably, Saudi’s starting point would be reaching out to its Shiite community and engaging in a genuine national reconciliation process.
The execution of Nimr and its aftermath do not have to serve only as a source of tension—they could serve as a source of peace as well.
The past weeks’ events should demonstrate to both Riyadh and Tehran that continued escalation is a destructive and self-defeating strategy through which neither can prevail in the end. There is much to learn from Syria, where both parties battled with no obvious outcome so far. There is certainly no need to repeat the mistakes, and that too, on a much larger scale.