The brutal Saudi execution of Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr has led to protests around the globe, as well as the burning of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, followed by the Saudi severing of relations with Iran. This exacerbation of Sunni-Shia tensions is the result of the reckless Saudi action against a popular, nonviolent Shia leader. Also reckless is the US government’s response, which has failed to condemn the Saudi government and distance itself from the abusive regime.
On January 2, the Saudi government executed 47 people, most of them by beheading. Those executed included Sunnis convicted of Al Qaeda-affiliated attacks, as well as Shia opponents—Sheik Nimr Al-Nimr and three others arrested when they were still juveniles. The killing of Al-Nimr has sparked a massive reaction because he was a prominent religious leader who defended the Shia minority and criticized the abuses—both domestic and foreign—of the Saudi regime. He supported the 2011 anti-government protests in the Eastern Province, protests that erupted in the wake of the Arab Spring. The oil-rich Eastern Province is home to some 2 million Shiites, who have long complained of discrimination by the Sunni government.
In response to increasingly vocal demands for reforms from Shiites, who constitute about 15 percent of the total population, Saudi authorities waged a harsh crackdown. Al-Nimr was arrested and imprisoned in 2012, then convicted of sedition, disobedience and bearing arms. He did not deny the political charges against him, but insisted he never carried weapons or called for violence.
He also distanced himself from sectarian divisions. He called for people to stand up to tyrants regardless of their sect, from the Sunni rulers in Bahrain to Syria’s Assad, who is from the Alawite sect of Shia Islam. “Sheikh al-Nimr preached that we should support the oppressed against the oppressor, regardless of religion,” said Gulf scholar Ali al-Ahmed. To add insult to injury, Sheik al-Nimr’s nephew, Ali al-Nimr, was targeted and arrested at the age of 17 for protesting government corruption, and his since been sentenced to beheading and public crucifixion.
The Saudi government was well aware that killing Sheikh al-Nimr would enrage Shia both inside and outside the country. Their actions abroad have already raised sectarian tensions, such as the 2011 Saudi military intervention in Bahrain to crush a democratic revolt dominated by the country’s majority Shiites. The Saudi military intervention in Yemen against the Houthis (a Shiite sect), an ongoing intervention that has killed thousands of innocents and caused a humanitarian crisis, has also angered the Shia community. And Saudi efforts to topple the Iranian-backed Assad regime in Syria also fuel tension between Saudi Arabia’s Sunni leadership and its Shiite citizens.
An additional factor fanning ethnic hatred has been ISIL attacks on Shiite mosques in the kingdom. Many Shiites hold the kingdom’s religious establishment responsible for the attacks and maintain that Saudi officials turn a blind eye to ISIL’s sectarian agenda in the kingdom.
The cleric's execution will also complicate Saudi Arabia's relationship with the Shiite-led government in Iraq, where the Saudi embassy was just reopened for the first time in nearly 25 years.
The US government has expressed concern that al-Nimr’s execution risked “exacerbating sectarian tensions at a time when they urgently need to be reduced.” The government understands that the explosive reaction to the al-Nimr execution has the potential to bring even more bloodshed to the Middle East, from derailing Syria peace talks to prolonging the war in Yemen to rekindling uprisings in Bahrain.
But instead of insisting on al-Nimr’s release during his years in prison and echoing Amnesty International’s condemnation of his “deeply flawed” trial, the US government was silent. Even after the execution, the US refused to issue a strong denunciation.
For decades US governments, both Democratic and Republican, have backed the kingdom. The US-Saudi alliance dates back to World War II, when US officials started to see Saudi's oil as a strategic advantage. Since then, the US has blindly supported the Kingdom in almost every political and economic effort, despite the fact that Saudi Arabia is an ultraconservative monarchy rife with human rights abuses.
Saudi Arabia has consistently been ranked by Freedom House as one of the worst humans rights violators in the world. Earning the lowest possible score in all three categories of freedom, civil liberties and political rights, it is one of only ten nations considered “not free.”
The killing of Sheikh Al-Nimr should serve as a prime moment for the U.S. to reconsider its alliance with the Saudi regime, a regime that not only denies human rights to its own people but exports death and destruction abroad. An upcoming activist-based Saudi Summit, which will be held in Washington DC on March 5-6, is an effort to build a campaign to support challenge this toxic relationship.
Medea Benjamin is the co-founder of the peace group CODEPINK and the human rights organization Global Exchange. She is currently writing a book on Saudi Arabia which will be published later this year.