By Simeon Kerr in Dubai and Heba Saleh in Cairo
Saudi Arabia’s shock decision to execute the dissident Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr along with 46 others convicted of terrorism offences has pushed the kingdom’s simmering cold war with Iran to boiling point.
Hardliners in Tehran stormed the Saudi embassy this weekend as a renewed war of words erupted between the two rivals as they vie for dominance in a region ravaged by the Arab spring and the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
Further protests are being planned in Qatif in Saudi’s Eastern Province, heartland of the country’s minority Shia population, as Saudi security forces bolstered their presence in the oil-rich region.
“Some people may choose to protest, but we care very much that there should be no bloodshed and no use of violence of any kind, which was the peaceful method of Sheikh Nimr,” his brother Mohammed al-Nimr told the FT by telephone from a gathering of condolences. But he was careful to distance himself from any protests.
Toby Matthiesen, a research fellow at Oxford university, said the decision to execute Nimr was rooted in Saudi’s complex domestic politics. He saw it as an attempt by Riyadh to shore up support among the large segment of the Saudi population who are sympathetic to Isis, the radical Sunni group, or who backed sectarian and anti-Iranian policies.
Of the 47 executed on Saturday, 43 were Sunni jihadis, whose insurgency against the ruling al-Saud was quashed a decade ago.
“They threw in a few Shia among the Sunni militants to say ‘we are even-handed, we execute both Sunni and Shia’,” said Mr Matthiesen, author of a book on the Saudi Shia.
“It is also supposed to show that Saudi does not tolerate any sign of dissent, whether violent, through demonstrations or through speeches and public appearances.”
After years of buying social peace through public spending and generous welfare payments, the oil price collapse has forced Riyadh to cut expenditure and raise energy prices.
“This is partly a warning that life is about to get financially very tough, and a warning for the Shia — for whom it is likely to be even tougher — not to try to rise up,” said James Spencer, a regional analyst.
The Saudi government has reiterated its claims that the firebrand cleric was executed for criminal terrorist activity, including violently resisting arrest and fomenting anti-government unrest. His defenders say he was merely an activist against discrimination.
Yet Riyadh would have been aware that the execution of the country’s most prominent Shia cleric would rile Iran.
As Saudi surveys the region, it sees Tehran’s interfering hand in a host of conflicts including Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Bahrain. Its response has been aggressive, sending troops to Bahrain to back a crackdown on Shia pro-democracy protests, funding rebels in Syria and fighting alongside the ousted Yemeni president against Iran-allied Houthi forces.
Some analysts believe Iran may now look to assist an escalation of Shia unrest in Bahrain and in Eastern Province, where popular demonstrations have so far been contained by the security forces.
In Bahrain on Sunday, the strife-torn area of Sitra witnessed a second day of clashes between mostly young protesters and police. Witnesses said several hundred protesters faced off against the security forces in armoured personnel carriers using tear gas and shot guns, causing several injuries.
The rivalry between Saudi and Iran has been aggravated by the virulent spread of sectarianism through Middle Eastern societies. Some of the Arab spring revolts, which began with calls for democracy, have mutated into political struggles amplified by the centuries-old Shia-Sunni divide, such as Syria, Yemen and Bahrain.
“The situation now is probably at its most tense since the height of the Iran-Iraq war which saw several instances of direct confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the mid-1980s,” said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen of Rice University’s Baker Institute.
In a sign that Nimr’s execution played well domestically, many Saudis took to social media to support their government. “The army of [Saudi king] Salman is the army of all Muslims, and we say no to the sons of temporary marriage, the suckers of blood, the Persian dogs,” tweeted one Saudi, using pejorative sectarian epithets.
Sunnis criticise Iran for backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while Tehran regards Damascus and Baghdad as the last lines of defence against Isis.
While Mr Ulrichsen said direct confrontation between Riyadh and Tehran was unlikely, he said there was a “possibility that the leadership in both countries will double down on support for their respective partners both in Syria and in Yemen”.
He also said that the crisis could derail recent behind-the-scenes efforts by the US and others to resolve the civil wars in these two countries.
Talks in Geneva have so far failed to find a political solution to the fighting in Yemen, where the Saudi-led coalition ended a ceasefire on Saturday. The US brokered talks on Syria at the end of last year that brought Saudi and Iranian officials around the same negotiating table, but the fighting has raged on.
“Such a supercharged atmosphere means officials in the US may find it even harder to balance their longstanding political and security ties with Saudi Arabia with their diplomatic opening to Iran,” said Mr Ulrichsen.
Additional reporting by Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran