Saudi Arabia’s execution of 47 people for terrorism offenses has set off a wave of protests in the region and added more tension to a region that is already a powder keg. Specifically, it was the execution of Shia cleric Sheik Nimr al-Nimr that stoked the fires. The cleric was a vocal opponent of the Saudi royal family, calling for the overthrow of the Saudi government and inciting sectarian strife in the kingdom, which is what led to his arrest and death sentence. Protests have erupted in Shia communities across the Middle East, following his execution. The most violent examples were in Tehran, where rioting crowds stormed and ransacked the Saudi embassy this evening. Iran, the region’s leading Shia power and rival to Saudi Arabia, denounced the execution and warned that the Saudis would pay a heavy price for their policies. The Saudis responded by summoning the Iranian ambassador in Riyadh and warned Iran about its strongly worded protest.
The Saudi-Iran showdown has not attracted the same level of attention that other flashpoints in the Middle East have. While Syria burns and tensions in Israel are on the rise, the two regional powerhouses have been squaring off in a duel for regional supremacy for some time now. The reaction to Sheik Nimr’s execution underscores the fact that religious sectarianism can lead to catastrophic destabilization in the Middle East if allowed to go unchecked.
In Tehran, some protesters appear to have made it into the Saudi embassy and caused damage. The situation appears to be under control for the moment. It is unlikely that the al-Nimr’s execution will lead to an overt conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia. However, the situation does give Iran an opening to encourage the Shia communities in the kingdom to openly defy Riyadh. That is, if Iran choses to exploit the current situation to its benefit. And why wouldn’t Tehran want to? The more attention Saudi Arabia has to devote to its internal issues, the less attention it will be able to focus on Iran.