The Real Reason Why Saudi Arabia Executed Sheikh Nimr

by Shireen Hunter

Saudi Arabia finally executed the elderly Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, even though many Muslim and other religious leaders as well as the United Nations and a number of political leaders had urged—at least privately—Saudi Arabia to commute the death sentence. Viewed in any logical light, this execution could not be in Saudi Arabia’s short- and long-term interests. But the execution can also be understood as a strategy to provoke Iran to respond in a way to justify a Saudi military attack against it.

Obviously, Saudi Arabia cannot be sure that it can win a war against Iran, at least not easily and certainly not by itself. But Saudi Arabia might count on a number of Arab and non-Arab countries joining this venture. Some Arab countries, notably the United Arab Emirates, would be only too happy to do so. Others such as Qatar and Kuwait could be intimidated or bribed into participating. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would be sorely tempted to jump on the bandwagon. After all, Erdogan sees Iran, as the heir to the Safavid Empire, as the real obstacle to his dream of creating anew the Ottoman Empire. That Sheikh Nimr was executed shortly after Erdogan’s meeting with King Salman is significant in this regard. Even Pakistan might sign on, given its commitment to defend the Kingdom against external threats.

However, Saudi Arabia’s efforts to provoke Iran into a violent reaction and thus start a war is really in hopes that a violent Iranian act would create such an uproar in Washington political circles, and especially in Congress, that the United States would be forced to intervene in the conflict by attacking Iran. A US intervention against Iran, the Saudis hope, would rid them once and for all of their Iran problem.

Nor is this mere speculation. Saudi Arabia for some time has been trying to provoke Iran. First there was the Saudi military intervention in Bahrain. Then there were Saudi efforts to topple the Assad regime. These were followed by the bombing of the Iranian embassy in Beirut in 2013, which killed a number of Lebanese as well as Iran’s cultural attaché. More recently, during the Haj ceremonies, Saudi authorities harassed two Iranian youth and a large number of Iranian pilgrims died as well. The Saudi government, moreover, created many difficulties for Iranian officials trying to locate, identify, and transfer the bodies of the victims to Iran. And of course Saudi Arabia launched a full-scale war in Yemen against what it claimed were Iranian-backed rebels.

Another provocation came last month when Nigerian authorities arrested the country’s Shia leader, Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaki, and the Nigerian army killed close to a thousand Shias for spurious reasons. Following Sheikh Zakzaki’s arrest Saudi King Salman reportedly congratulated Nigeria’s president for dealing effectively with terrorism (the king’s definition of terrorism apparently extends to the peaceful observance of religious rituals). Meanwhile, the abuse of the Shias in other countries, notably Azerbaijan, continued as did their indiscriminate killing by Saudi- influenced groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan, as illustrated by the beheading in November of a nine-year-old Hazara girl in Afghanistan.

Iran will not likely succumb to the latest Saudi provocation—just as it has resisted earlier ones. For example, Iran did not retaliate against Saudi military intervention by sending troops to Bahrain to defend not only Bahraini Shias but Bahrainis of Iranian origin. It has not directly interfered in Yemen, and its engagement in Syria has remained limited. It did not overreact to either the bombing of its embassy in Beirut or the mistreatment of its nationals and pilgrims during the Haj. However, there is always a risk that popular passions could run high and that Iranian hardliners, for their own personal ends, could pressure the government to respond more strongly.

Under these circumstances, it is crucial not to underestimate the risks of conflict that could end up entangling the United States in another Middle East war that it does not want. Saudi Arabia at the moment is very much like an angry, wounded animal. Many of its plans for regional hegemony have gone awry and have saddled it with huge financial burdens. Most important, they are still seething with anger at the nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1. Unwilling to see how unreasonable their ambitions have been and believing that they can either bribe or intimidate everyone into doing their bidding, the Saudis blame Iran for their thwarted ambitions.

The West has greatly helped to nurture Saudi delusions by ignoring the horrendous abuse of Shia rights in that country and elsewhere and by excessively demonizing Iran. At this sensitive juncture, it is vital that the Western powers do not succumb to Saudi Arabia’s all-too-obvious games. A sectarian conflagration in the Middle East will not only harm Iran. It will spread to the Caucasus and to South Asia. With Iran under attack, all Shias will feel at risk of becoming victims of an all-out genocide. Lastly, a new Middle East war against Iran will almost certainly involve China and Russia and thus would potentially entail the risk of great power conflict. Russia and China won’t likely remain as passive as they did in 2001 and 2003.

Under these circumstances, the great powers, especially Western powers, must restrain the Saudis and also prevent their Middle Eastern and South Asian allies from being dragged into the Saudi vendetta against Iran. Most important, they finally must ask themselves whether Saudi Arabia is really worth the headaches it is causing.

Photo: An execution in Saudi Arabia

Shireen Hunter

Shireen Hunter is an affiliate fellow at the Center For Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. From 2005 to 2007 she was a senior visiting fellow at the center. From 2007 to 2014, she was a visiting Professor and from 2014 to July 2019 a research professor. Before joining she was director of the Islam program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a program she had been associated since 1983. She is the author and editor of 27 books and monographs. Her latest book is Arab-Iranian Relations: Dynamics of Conflict and Accommodation, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019.



  1. Saudi Arabia’s tilt towards Sunnis is an open secret and so are its policies to safeguard it. But the writer is trying to pose Iran as an angel as if it is an innocent victim of Saudi aggression.

    Sorry to say, but it is a highly biased analysis, as one can expect from a Shia writer of perhaps Iranian descent. The writer has conveniently not talked about Iran’s role in spreading Shiaism in the Middle East and South Asia. It is in fact this spread of Shiaism in the Middle East after the so-called revolution which started Sunni-Shia divide.

    If Saudis have their vassal states in the Middle East and South Asia, the fact is Iran has its own proxies too in those regions. Lebanon, Syria are two examples, while in Yemen, Iran is also fueling sectarian fire supporting Houthis. Brutalities by the Shia government in Iraq against Sunnis also resulted in Islamic State. Was there no role by Iran? And Iran could not have intervened in Bahrain during Shia revolt against the government because it was the Bahrainian government which wanted Saudi forces to quell the uprising and Iran would have been an invader had it intervened. In that case, it would have been kicked out by the Bahrainian and Saudi forces perhaps supported by the UN. Even in Pakistan, there are large number of Shias who are out on the streets to protest on Nimr al-Nimr’s execution. Was Iranians reaction in Tehran and Mashhad appropriate?

    There were a lot of pilgrims killed during Hajj, but the writer has focused only on Iranians. There are dozens of pilgrims of other nationalities who were killed but are stilling missing.

    So, painting Iran as an angel is a naive thing to do in the present scenario.

  2. King Salman and his new BFF, Bibi Netanyahu. Despite the QLineOrientalist’s particular position on this matter, Ms. Hunter’s analysis is spot-on. There was, indeed no apparent need to execute al-Nimr; however, we are reminded that this event is just another piece in the proxy war underway in the Middle East. And while this may be a topical balm to those caught in the smaller issue of Sunni-Shia grievances, it is the big vultures perched on a rim around this regional debacle, each sporting its team jersey, and rooting for the total obliteration of the other side. It is beyond tragic, and it is very, very scary.

  3. Speculation nothing more, if you want a military intervention you don’t wait for a justification. The reason Al Nimer has been executed is to send a clear message that Saudi under its new role will never tolerate any kind of what they thing and unacceptable behaviour that is deemed to disturb peace in Saudi. Saudi Arabia got attacked several times by Shiaa terrorists and the execution was deemed to happen soon as a move by the Saudi king to strengthen his control and send a clear message.

  4. There are some truth to what the author says here, but it’s one side of the story to say the least. There are many others issues where IRI is instigator or contributor in various conflicts, be it , in Yemen, and Huthies ; In Syria supporting Assad’s atrocious behaviour; in Lebanon with Hezbollah; in Iraq with Maliki ex PM , in Sudan with Al Bashir, in south America , then with Chaves …. etc. These are Khomenie’s doctrins to capture Jerusalem and the road to that is through Iraq ( Karbala) that followed by Khamenei’s. As long as IRI exists, there is no peaceful solution for Iranians and the Middle East region.
    Taking diplomats hostage, or causing damages to embassies, be it UK’s and now, Saudi’s; seems becoming a trade mark for Islamic Republic, where they think , everything can be resolved by force of hooligans, rather by diplomacy. What happened in Saudi, that caused execution of so many people in one day, is happening in Islamic Republic of Iran since it’s inception, 37 years ago. Just In 2015, they have executed over 1000, according to Amnesty Intl and others who are monitoring IRI’s human rights behaviour. The misery of Iranians, internally, or externally is directly caused by IRI. Prior to so called “Revolution”, there was no such a issue in these magnitude for Iranians and the region.
    The worst dictatorship is a religious one, where everything is justified under the name of the god almighty, with religious cloak, attire and some beard.

  5. The Saudis would be fools to get into an open war with Iran. They are undermining Iran by pushing oil prices lower, thus they wage an economic war. The latest execution did do the work as its intended (don’t have internal knowledge, so its only speculation). Erdogan would be a fool to poke his finger into Iran’s eyes. The proxy war between SA and Iran is costly and could come back to bite SA. Both countries want to control the region. When the late Shah left, the US built up the Saudi military to do the job and the Iranians want it back. I don’t believe the US would be foolish enough to get involved.

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