It’s hard to believe that Saudi Arabia, currently heading up the UN Human Rights Commission, started 2016 with the beheading of 47 prisoners. When was the last time the head of a global human rights commission executed 47 people in one day?
The crude symbolism of who was executed and who wasn’t was supposed to speak to a variety of audiences. For the west, the executions — mostly of radical salafi jihadis — were intended to convey a harsh crackdown on extremists and to counteract the rising comparisons between the so-called Islamic State of ISIS and the so-called Islamic state of our Saudi allies. It is hard not to notice that they share ideologies of misogynistic intolerance, techniques of repression, not to mention a penchant for beheadings.
In another sign the Saudis are aware of global human rights standards, they have not yet executed 21 year old Ali al-Nimr. This young Saudi was arrested in 2012 at the age of 17 for the crime of attending an Arab Spring protest calling for government reform. There is little doubt that he was singled out as a member of a prominent Shiite clerical family for torture, beheading and crucifixion. This ghastly sentence of a minor for peaceful protest was widely condemned by human rights activists, and refraining from killing the young man so far is a grudging nod to western allies’ feelings, but King Salman has not actually pardoned Ali al-Nimr.
Meanwhile, the Saudis did execute Ali’s uncle, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent Saudi Shiite cleric in life, and new martyr to Islamic sectarian conflict in death. Getting tough on a rising voice of Shiite opposition in Saudi’s Eastern province is meant not only to keep the Saudi minority in their place, but also to appease the right wing of Saudi Sunnis alarmed at the crackdown on the salafis who share many of their values. This is ironic because Nimr himself was a non-sectarian Shiite, critical of his government but hardly an Iranian agent: He opposed Iran’s support of the Assad government in Syria and supported the Sunni majority opposition in the war.
In killing the elder Nimr, the Saudis have indulged in a reckless provocation to Shiites throughout the world, already mobilized, committed to a fight, and winning in Syria. Shiites revere their clerics, especially their unjustly murdered ones, in ways that Sunnis do not understand–and the killing has already had repercussions across the region. The Saudi embassy in Teheran has come under attack, the Iranian Council of the Revolutionary Guards has vowed reprisals, the Shiite majority of Bahrain are out in the streets, and Shiite Hizballah has been tagging their missiles attacking Syrian rebels with calls for revenge for Nimr’s killing. A new Saudi embassy was just opened in Bagdad today, but Shiite leaders in Iraq are trumpeting the fall of the house of Saud.
In response the Saudis, and their ally regimes in Sudan and Bahrain, have severed all ties with Iran; the UAE has also downgraded relations. However, these developments, like the ugly Saudi war on Yemen’s Houthis, do nothing to advance Saudi stability at home or standing in the world. With Iran and Russia on the make in Syria, and no coherent U.S. or European counter-policy on the Syrian war, the Saudi move of killing Nimr will only fuel the raging fire of Islamic sectarianism.