Relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran are in free fall following Saudi Arabia's most recent series of executions, marking a year that is set to see deeper sectarian tensions plague the region. While 2015 saw the two sides convene over the Syrian peace negotiations held in Vienna, Saudi Arabia's new year gesture has sparked a new freeze in relations closely tied to the region's defining issue: the Sunni-Shia split.
On Saturday 2 January, Saudi Arabia's interior ministry announced on state television that it had executed 47 'terrorists' including a prominent Shia cleric, Nimr al-Nimr. The execution of al-Nimr drew widespread expressions of outrage from leading Shia figures alongside popular international protests. The fallout saw the complete severing of diplomatic relations between the Kingdom and Iran, and on Monday, following Riyadh's lead, Sudan and Bahrain also broke diplomatic ties with Iran.
When he gained the throne almost a year ago, Saudi's new king, Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, promised continuity. Yet the regional situation he inherited posed a stark choice: rapprochement or continued conflict by proxy with Iran. His government's anti-Assad position in Syria stood in direct opposition to Iranian foreign policy, and on his southern border, the Iran-backed Houthi insurgency had just forced the government of Yemen to resign.
With such a regional picture, the backlash to al-Nimr's death is not surprising. But the question remains: why did Saudi Arabia choose to stage these executions now? Many of the accused had been imprisoned for a decade and al-Nimr himself had been sentenced to death – to widespread protest – in October 2014. The majority of those executed on Saturday were arrested from 2003-6 following a series of attacks on the Kingdom by al-Qaeda. We can be sure that the timing of these executions is not incidental. But was it a practical response to Saudi's domestic pressures, or was it intended to force a political showdown?
The decision to go ahead with the executions makes sense from a domestic perspective. The Saudi government has been facing pressure to respond to the country's more recent attacks, such as a suicide bombing at a mosque near the border of Yemen last summer that was later claimed by ISIS. It is possible that Saudi's latest executions aimed to reassure critics at home who are keen to see more robust security measures in the wake of recent threats. In a statement released in November, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi made explicit threats towards the Kingdom, calling for more attacks on the country. The executions no doubt gesture towards the beginning of a heavy clampdown on the Kingdom's security threat. The execution of four Shia figures alongside known al-Qaeda operatives itself signals Saudi's position on the threat of Shia terrorism. The Saudi government is determined that Shia threats to Sunni communities are given the same treatment as Sunni groups.
Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was a leading figure during the protests that erupted in 2011 in Saudi Arabia's eastern provincial town, Qatif, and he went on to gain a large popular following, particularly among the local Shia youth. He was undoubtedly a fierce critic of the regime, with his notably aggressive and zealous speeches. Though he had not called for violence, he framed his contention with the regime through a deeply sectarian paradigm that reflected his separatist agenda. This does not make him a terrorist, but given his following, he could easily be used as a spiritual leader for those willing to take up arms for his cause: an unofficial ideologue for a more sinister manifestation of Saudi Shia separatism. The problem his execution poses the regime is that his death could do the same.
For Saudi officials, Nimr was no less poisonous than the al-Qaeda ideologue, Faris al-Shuwail al-Zahrani, who was among the 47 executed. He, like many of the others, was arrested in 2004 and at the time was described as the most 'wanted terrorist in the Kingdom.' His execution was a symbolic gesture towards the highly securitised nature of Saudi counter-terrorism. But the regime has long had to balance its hardline Salafi critics at home who condemn the Kingdom's modernisation efforts and its relations with Western governments and Israel, alongside its counter-terrorism strategy. The two do not always sit harmoniously. It is therefore possible that the Shia executions were an effort to respond to the ruler's conservative friends and foes.
Nevertheless, the threat that Saudi Arabia has attributed to the Shia cleric is the most recent example of a paranoia that has become prolific in the region. The separatist campaign that al Nimr came to represent in the Eastern Province had long existed before al-Nimr had gained great popularity. It was not his separatist views per se that threatened the government but instead its belief that he was an agent of the Iran regime. Accusations of espionage have been prolific across the region, particularly following the Arab Spring, and Saudi's paranoia is just part of a broader trend. In March last year, Iran executed six Sunni prisoners accused of 'enmity of God' and there are currently around 40 Sunni prisoners (many of them Kurds) who have been accused of similar crimes. Both Iran and Saudi have engaged in mass executions of prisoners from minority religious communities on dubious charges and as deplorable as it is, the Kingdom's recent executions should not be seen as particularly unusual.
If we must consider Saturday's series of executions as a glimpse into Saudi foreign policy then we should see it as a flexing of its muscles. If anything at all, it is King Salman's loud and clear message that he will not have the internal affairs of the Kingdom dictated by his allies or his enemies. Last week, Salman received Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Riyadh for what was their third meeting since Salman's tenure. Their relationship has been entrenched since Salman replaced Abdullah, marking a break from the latter's hostile relations with Turkey over Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. Erdogan stands as a committed ally to Saudi Arabia and its newly formed anti-terror coalition. It appears that Salman is cultivating one more regional ally should any showdown with Iran occur.