Saudi Arabia has started 2016 in the midst of a controversy after being condemned after putting forty-seven men to death, including a prominent Shiite cleric by the name of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, on terrorism-related charges. The mass execution, the largest seen within the kingdom since the 63 militants who seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca were put to death in 1980, was basically a warning shot towards anyone who could be considering violence against the state and its regime. A mix of religious and government tension formed by the al-Nimr and others had been deemed threatening by the Arabian government.
These executions are the first of what will no doubtfully be many in this new year, and it’s no longer a surprise. The ultra-conservative and rather radical Saudi Arabian kingdom put at least 157 people to death in 2015, the most annually in two decades. This first official mass execution is a rather large percentage of the total we saw in the last year. Saudi Arabia’s Sunni monarchy, suffering a major blow with the death of King Abdullah last January, has successfully escalated rivalry with the dominantly Shiite Iran (and in turn Syria, Yemen, and many other sectors of the Middle East) by going through with the threatened executions.
However, the increasingly radicalized Saudi Arabian government (ironically in charge of a human rights panel in the rather pathetic United Nations as of last year) brutally murdered Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr as part of the religious rivalries between Shiite leaders in other countries and their own regime. Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, an outspoken and revolutionary critic of the Saudi monarchy, was a symbolic leader honored by Shiite protesters across several Middle Eastern and Persian Gulf countries. Of course, this position is easily targetted, leading the Saudi government to put him to death.
“It is clear that this barren and irresponsible policy will have consequences for those endorsing it, and the Saudi government will have to pay for pursuing this policy,” Hossein Jaberi-Ansari, a spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, had to comment on the mass execution. Even more criticism came from Shiite politicians and clerics in Iraq within hours, with the Houthi revel movement and the Lebanon-based group Hezbollah issuing statements calling the execution an “assassination”. These groups have seen al-Nimr as a man who did nothing more than demand the freedom of oppressed peoples.
Shiites have taken their concerns to the streets, protesting near al-Nimr’s home in eastern Saudi Arabia. Riot police officers across Bahrain have already fallen to violence, firing tear gas in a crowd of 100 protesters who carried al-Nimr’s photograph through the streets as they chanted against the ruling Sunni government. Saudi Arabian officials have let out a statement denying that “devotion” towards any religious sector (known as sectarianism) had any role in the mass execution, including the execution of al-Nimr. “This means that Saudi Arabia will not hesitate to punish [all] terrorists,” Anwar Eshki, a retired general of the Saudi Army had stated, “there is no difference between [the] criminals.”
A lot of controversy has risen about al-Nimr, but what about the other 46 men? Most of them were convicted in connection with a wave of attacks sponsored by Al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia almost a decade ago. They had been used as an example to showcase the kingdom’s fight against terrorism groups.
In a country where at least 157 people were executed last year – a year that began with the inauguration of a new monarch, mind you, with the death of King Abdullah – what else did we expect the country to start off with this year? In 2014, 90 people were put to death. In 2015, 157 were put to death. And now, only two days into 2015, 47 have been put to death. While Saudi officials have argued that the increase has been nothing more but a backlog of death sentences that were merely going through political process, human rights groups (of course not the one led by Saudi Arabia in the UN) have still criticized the nation for their wrongdoings.
This religious tension between the Sunnis and Shiites will continue to dominate this year’s political news in the region, guaranteed.