The execution Shi’a cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr by the al-Saud royal family is an attempt to provoke Iran and exacerbate the schism between Sunnis and Shi’ites.

On January 2 Saudi Arabia’s Interior Ministry announced that al-Nimr had been executed along with 47 other people, including al-Qaeda militants. The execution resulted in the torching of the Saudi embassy in Tehran and a reported rocket attack on its embassy in Baghdad.

Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was from al-Awamiyah, an eastern province in Saudi Arabia. Although critical of the Saudi government and its treatment of the Shi’a minority in the country, he was not an especially militant opponent of the al-Saud royal family.

According to a cable posted on the WikiLeaks website, in 2008 during a meeting with US officials in Riyadh al-Nimr made an attempt to

…distance himself from previously reported pro-Iranian and anti-American statements, instead adopting a less radical tone on topics such as the relationship between Iran and the Saudi Shi’a, and American foreign policy.  Arguing that he is portrayed publicly as much more radical than the true content of his words and beliefs, the Sheikh also espoused other conciliatory ideas such as fair political decision-making over identity-based politics, the positive impact of elections, and strong “American ideals” such as liberty and justice.  Despite this more moderate tone, Al-Nimr reasserted his ardent opposition to what he described as the authoritarianism of the reactionary al-Saud regime, stating he would always support “the people” in any conflict with the government.

The execution came as a surprise to the sheikh’s brother, Mohammed al-Nimr, who told the Associated Press the execution came as a “big shock” because “we thought the authorities could adopt a political approach to settle matters without bloodshed.”

Other WikiLeaks documents from Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry reveal the Saudi royal family’s fanatical obsession with Iran and Shi’a Islam and its zeal in spreading its Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam.

“While the documents do not show any Saudi support for militant activity, critics argue that the kingdom’s campaign against Shiites — and its promotion of a strict form of Islam — have eroded pluralism in the Muslim world and added to the tensions fueling conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere,” The New York Times reported in July.

Saudi nationalism fostered by the al-Saud ruling clique produced the intervention in Yemen against the Houthis, a Zaidi Shia group from Sa’dah.

“Ever since the Saudi-led coalition launched operations in Yemen in late March, the kingdom’s Grand Mufti, Abdel Aziz Al Sheikh, has called for national support and conscription. This is significant as it is the Al Sheikh family, the official interpreter of Wahabism, that provides the religious foundation for Saudi nationalism,” notes Theodore Karasik, writing for The National.

The Saudis, however, may have overplayed their hand with the execution of al-Nimr. The former prime minister of Iraq, Nuri al-Maliki, believes the execution will ultimately lead to the downfall of the regime. In a statement following the execution al-Maliki said the Iraqi people “strongly condemn these detestable sectarian practices and affirm that the crime of executing Sheikh al-Nimr will topple the Saudi regime as the crime of executing the martyr al-Sadr did to Saddam.”

Mohammad Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr was a prominent Iraqi Twelver Shi’a cleric of the rank of Grand Ayatollah. Sadr and his sons were assassinated by Saddam’s government in response to the role the cleric played in Shi’a uprisings in the 1980s.

Video: h/t Mimi Al Laham

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