Saudi Arabia announced on Saturday that it had executed the most prominent opposition figure among its Shiite minority. Firebrand cleric Nimr al-Nimr was an advocate for nonviolent protests, and his brother urged “peaceful” responses to his death. However, his execution may touch off protests in the kingdom that could escalate to violence, or inspire sectarian attacks by Shiite terrorist groups across the region.
Nimr had been imprisoned since 2012, and was sentenced to death in 2014 – a sentence that reportedly prompted at least two Bahraini militias to carry out shootings or bombings. Pro-Iranian Shiite groups in Bahrain and Iraq had previously blamed America for his detention and threatened further attacks if his death sentence was carried out.
Following news of Nimr’s execution Saturday, Iran and its regional allies issued swift, furious condemnations. Tehran warned the kingdom it would “pay a high price” for his death, and in Lebanon, Hezbollah threatened that the move would facilitate the monarchy’s “downfall.” In Saudi Arabia itself, an eyewitness reported a march in the eastern city of Qatif, with hundreds of Shiite protesters chanting “down with the [House of] Saud.” In the Iranian city of Mashhad, protesters reportedly launched firecrackers at the Saudi consulate, climbing its walls and pulling down its flag. Iranian protesters also ransacked and set fire to part of Saudi Arabia's embassy in Tehran later in the day.
Saturday’s mass execution was Saudi Arabia’s largest since 1980, and comes after the kingdom marked a two-decade high in capital punishment last year. Nimr’s execution was decreed by a royal order, issued after the country’s top courts upheld the death sentences of 47 individuals, nearly all of them Saudi nationals. The punishments were carried out across twelve provinces – in eight of them, by beheading and in the remaining four by firing squads (the method of the cleric’s execution remains unclear). Nimr’s nephew, meanwhile, still faces a death sentence for participating in anti-regime protests.
With the exception of Nimr, many of the convicts executed on Saturday were believed to be Sunni jihadists who fought for al-Qaeda’s Saudi branch or its Yemeni successor, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Among them was Fares al-Shuwail, described as al-Qaeda’s top spiritual leader in the country, who had been imprisoned for over a decade.
Thus, in addition to a potential Shiite backlash, Riyadh may also need to worry about an al-Qaeda response. After plans for the mass execution were leaked to the press in late November, AQAP threatened to strike against “the necks of the Al Saud rulers” and to “shed the blood of the[ir] soldiers.” According to Reuters, the Islamic State also threatened revenge on Saturday for the executions.
Saudi Arabia’s mass execution puts Washington in a difficult position, as Nimr’s killing looks more like authoritarian repression than counterterrorism. Indeed, it has already been condemned by the European Union, as well as in a weaker statement by the U.S. State Department, which said it was “particularly concerned” over the cleric’s death.
The U.S. should support Riyadh’s legitimate efforts to combat terrorism by such groups as al-Qaeda, as well as Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its proxies. But the kingdom’s continued marginalization of disaffected Shiites harms U.S. interests by undermining stability in a critical region.